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June 29, 2023

Consolidating Memory

NSF-supported researchers at UCLA have discovered the unique brain wave rhythms that help with retraining memory during sleep. The work points towards a possible treatment for memory issues such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or even memory loss associated with aging.

Credit: U.S. National Science Foundation

The human brain does a lot of housekeeping while we sleep. But what role does sleep play in strengthening memory? Could treatment during sleep help people with memory loss or Alzheimer's disease? We'll explore in the U.S. National Science Foundation's "Discovery Files."

It is believed the brain strengthens memories it expects to use in the future during the slow brain waves cycles of deep sleep. NSF-supported researchers at UCLA have discovered the first physiological evidence from inside the human brain.

Using the electrode implants already placed in 18 epilepsy patients for clinical reasons, they were able to test their memory over the course of 2 nights. One in which they slept as normal, and one where a gentle electric pulse was applied strategically.

The subjects were shown paired images of celebrities and animals and asked to recall which star was paired with which pet. The subjects were quizzed again following a night's sleep. On the nights of electric stimulation, the subjects performed better on the memory tests.

During the deep sleep cycle linked with memory consolidation, targeted electricity was timed with the brain's natural electrical signals to get the neurons to fire in sync. The results of this study suggest that deep brain stimulation during sleep can enhance memory and could one day be used to treat debilitating disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

To hear more science and engineering news, including the researchers making it, subscribe to "NSF's Discovery Files" podcast.

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