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Stimulating the brain can bring back forgotten short-term memories

By Angela Chen, The Verge | Dec 1, 2016

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Some hopeful news for those who can’t remember new people’s names: stimulating the brain with a magnetic pulse can bring back forgotten short-term memories, as long as we know that we’ll need that information later.

Scientists used to think that we had to keep consciously thinking about something, like a new name, to remember it short-term. From the point of view of a brain scan, this means that all the neurons, or brain cells, involved in remembering that name would fire continuously and light up on the scan. But in a study published today in the journal Science, researchers led by University of Notre Dame psychologist Nathan Rose discovered that people remember things short-term even when the neurons aren’t firing. This suggests that short-term memory works in several different ways. And crucially, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive way of stimulating the brain, can even bring that memory back.

People have been wondering for a decade short-term memory might work when the neurons aren’t firing, says Edward Ester, a cognitive scientist at the University of California-San Diego who was not involved in the study. Until now, though, nobody could show this using direct experiments in humans. The research involving TMS is exciting, too, he adds, and could one day help people with long-term memory problems, too.

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