We are constantly making new memories, at the same rate as we live them. But most of these will be lost, since they contain information we don’t really care about, like a boring bus trip or walking down the street. But some memories are more important and so remain in our mind, like those of family and friends, and it is a really heartbreaking when due to illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease they disappear.


The hippocampus controls memory formation

This new invention is therefore something to hope for. Scientists from Northwestern Univeristy, Chicago, discovered that when they applied a magnetic field on a patient’s brain their memory performance would be boosted. This was investigated in a trial, where two sets of patients were given either this treatment, called TMS for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or a placebo. After, they were provided with images of people’s faces, and when a picture was shown, some words were read aloud. Once this was done, the patients were given a couple of minutes, and then tested to see if they could relate the images to the words they had heard. Those that had been given TMS scored better in the test than those without it.

But how does TMS actually work? Well, it has been known for quite a while that the nervous system works by a series of impulses of electricity. The brain is no different, so if you want to stimulate the brain, you want to apply an electric current to it. This can be done with drugs or surgery, but what makes TMS special is that it is non-invasive, so it doesn’t enter the patient’s body, making the whole procedure easier and somewhat safer. The magnetic field that flows through the brain creates an electric field, which stimulates the brain. If this is done in the right area, it can enhance certain abilities.

To improve memory, the immediate assumption would be to treat the hippocampus with TMS, since this is the area were most of the brain’s work on memory happens. But the hippocampus is too deep in our brains, so the magnetic radiation wouldn’t reach it well enough. Therefore, the researchers decided to work on a more superficial part of the brain that indirectly stimulates the hippocampus. The new electric current flowing through the brain caused memories to last longer, specifically the associative memories (those that link something to something else). However, the effects seemed to last for 24 hours only.

Still, with enough research, TMS could develop into an efficient treatment for memory-loss diseases, but care has to be taken since the brain is very delicate and even the slightest of changes can cause a chain reaction.


Caffeine Will Get You A’s


Caffeine, the molecule for students

There are few students that have coffee to thank for getting them through university, though the reason for this may not be the one you think.

The key of its success is a substance called caffeine (C8H10N4O2), which not only helps fight sleep, therefore allowing students to stay up all night studying, but a new study suggests it might also help strengthen long term memory.

Before this study, it was a known fact that memories were more intense thanks to caffeine, but the explanation for this was that it increased attentiveness and alertness. However, researcher Michael Yassa from the University of California put together 2 groups of individuals, and gave a pill containing 200 milligrams of caffeine to one group, and a placebo to the other. Then, they were made to analyse some images, and a day later, returned, and took a test. The test displayed 3 types of images: some from the ones they’d been shown, some similar to these, and some completely new.

The results were clear. The difference between the groups in distinguishing the old images and the new ones was insignificant, but there was a considerable difference in the identification of the old ones and the similar ones.

This proved that caffeine helps in the process of memory consolidation, meaning it helps make memories stay longer in our mind. So studying with a cup of coffee will help make you remember the information better, though the amount of caffeine is very important. Too little caffeine won’t do the job, and too much could have side effects such as headaches. The perfect amount is about 200 milligrams, which is the equivalent of two espressos.

But, unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that having a cup of coffee just before an exam will bring back the memories of the answers. Caffeine helps make longer lasting memories, not recall them better.