You stride purposefully into the living room and then ... your mind goes blank. You can't remember what you planned to do.
Or you memorize a short grocery list. But when you arrive at the supermarket all you can recall is yogurt. What else were you supposed to buy?
Then there are those times you bump into what's-his-name at work. Or struggle to dredge up the title of that book you wanted to buy or movie you saw last week.
Such lapses are presumed to be a normal feature of the aging brain. They can't be helped.
Or can they? Researchers at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine and Boston University report tantalizing progress in related experiments to boost short- and longer-term memory. The first type is "working memory." That's what's used to remind yourself of a phone number you just heard, or to take your medication. Then there's longer-term memory that helps you recall something that happened weeks or years ago.
In one set of experiments at Boston University, researchers jolted the brains of people over age 60 with a mild electrical current. Study participants donned what look like shower caps with electrodes protruding (Think: Grade Z 1950s sci-fi movies). No, the therapy doesn't hurt. It's more like a tingling or itching sensation, test subjects say. Result: After the zapping, study participants over 60 performed a certain memory task as well as those in their 20s, The Associated Press reports.
In a separate study, researchers at Northwestern's Feinberg School applied high-frequency magnetic stimulation to areas on the surface of the brain connected to the hippocampus, which is the memory vault of the brain. Researchers gave subjects a difficult memory test, showing them about 80 objects in certain settings -- a key in a kitchen, for instance, or a toothbrush in a shed scene. Later, the subjects were asked to recall which objects appeared in which scenes. Before the treatment, older adults scored far worse in this memory tests than younger ones. A day after the treatment, the older adults performed at the same level as people in their 20s and 30s. Again, there's no pain involved.
Shocking and exciting? "Totally," Northwestern's Joel Voss tells us. Memory ability peaks in the early 20s, he says, and then slowly declines.The research aims to help people with age-related memory challenges _ all of us _ but may also prove helpful in treating early stages of Alzheimer's, Voss says.
Unfortunately, the effects of those treatments wear off after a few hours or a few days. But we can imagine a time when the forgetful could get a mild memory zap with an implantable chip, or maybe via a smartphone app. Who wouldn't trade a momentary tingle for days or weeks of great memory?
Seniors are often told to exercise their brains to preserve mental acuity. There are plenty of programs, though most of them are more effective at lightening your wallet than improving your memory.
But the research suggests that instead of doing crossword puzzles and working Sudokus, the aging mind can be jolted to a more powerful state. Just imagine ... a world without lost car keys.