The Current

Give your memory a workout: Scientists explore high-tech and low-key ways to improve recall

From exercise to cutting-edge brain implants, researchers are discovering ways to improve our memory.
There's yet another reason you should be hitting the gym this winter season: scientists says it can boost your memory. (Shutterstock / imtmphoto)

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Thirty-six million people worldwide suffer from Alzheimer's disease and dementia. In Canada, 25,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

Those sobering numbers have researchers around the globe racing to come up with new ways to help the brain fend off memory loss.

From simple mental exercises and lifestyle tips to increasingly high-tech advances — a wide-range of techniques for improving memory are coming into focus. 

Michael Kahana, a neuroscientist in the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is exploring some of the field's most cutting-edge research.

His recent study looked at the effects brain implants can have on memory systems. Kahana's team analyzed how small electric shots from 100 to 200 electrodes influenced memory storage and retrieval in patients with intractable epilepsy.

The findings have excited the scientific community.  

"It resulted in a 15 per cent improvement in memory when the impulses were delivered, both at the moments when memory was predicted to fail, as well as in an interesting part of the brain — the lateral temporal cortex ... In that region we were able to consistently improve memory with this type of smart stimulator."

Kahana says an implant to improve memory could be as small as a wristwatch, and it would be implanted either in the cranium or in the chest. (Alain Herzog/EPFL)

Kahana told The Current's guest host Catherine Cullen that this technology can be expected to go to clinical trial within "a small number of years," and that it is aimed toward patients with Alzheimer's disease, mild cognitive impairments or other neurological disorders that affect memory. 

Peter Reiner, the co-founder of the National Core for NeuroEthics at the University of British Columbia, agrees the research is a great advance for the area of study, but said we have to be cautious of the ethical implications when considering cognitive enhancements. 

"Any time that you have technologies like this, people pretty quickly move towards … enhancing people who don't have cognitive defects and then things get a little bit more complicated."

Other researchers are coming up with practical techniques we can all use to significantly improve our memory on a daily basis.

Jennifer Heisz, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of kinesiology at McMaster University, said high-intensity physical exercise increases memory performance by about 10 per cent.

"Exercise is thought to promote new brain cells in this brain region called the hippocampus, which is critical for learning and memory."

Colin MacLeod, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo, said saying things out loud is another quick trick for improved recall.

"In a recent study we had people read some words silently, and other words aloud, and then we tested their memory," he told Cullen.  "They remembered the words they read aloud significantly better — about 10 to 15 percent better."

But don't go around reading everything to yourself. Besides the obvious fact that everyone will hate you, the effectiveness of this phenomenon, referred to by MacLeod as "the production effect," is founded on distinguishability.

"What we think is important about reading out loud is it makes things distinctive. So of course if you read everything out loud, nothing is distinctive."

Want more tips? Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese and Suzanne Dufresne. 


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