You know what it’s like. There’s a word that’s on the tip of your tongue…but you can’t quite access it. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get a little brain boost in those moments? A whiz-bang brain implant may be the first step.

Recent finding: Neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania have made a remarkable discovery—a surgically implanted brain device that stimulates specific areas of the brain with electrical pulses at just the right moment can improve memory performance by up to 15%.

Study details: The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, focused on 25 patients who were being treated for epilepsy. As part of that treatment, the patients already had electrodes implanted in their brains. An earlier study involving these patients had shown that delivering electrical stimulation to their brains boosted memory when it was predicted to fail.

As part of the new investigation, the electrodes determined and recorded the exact patterns that indicated when each patient’s brain memory functions were working well and when that brain needed a little nudge. This information was used to create a computer algorithm that could identify those patterns in the brain and predict when a memory lapse was likely to happen.

To test the effectiveness of the new brain-stimulation system, the patients were asked to memorize a list of words…and recall as many as they could after a short distraction. They performed this test and other similar tests repeatedly—some with the implant that delivered the electrical pulses turned on and some with it turned off. The patients weren’t told by the researchers whether the device was on or off—and they couldn’t feel any difference. When the device was turned on, the study participants performed 15% percent better, on average, on the word-recall test.

What this means: This level of memory improvement may not sound earth-shattering, but it’s about the same amount of memory that patients with Alzheimer’s disease lose over about two-and-a-half years. The development of this technology is in its early experimental stage, but scientists believe that it may suggest a new type of treatment to help people who have serious memory problems, such as those with dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease) or traumatic brain injuries.

Bottom line: Even though the test on patients with epilepsy was a success, the researchers don’t know yet whether the results will be similar in a broader population. It’s also worth noting that the memory boost provided by the brain implant does not offer the kind of help you need to remember, say, where you left your keys. The implant tested here also requires an extremely delicate surgical procedure to the brain, which would make it a choice for only the most severe cases of memory impairment. Even so, it’s an exciting development—and one that could well play an important role in future treatments.

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