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We may go to sleep at night, but our brains don't. Instead, they spend those quiet hours tidying up, and one of their chores is to lug memories into long-term storage boxes.
Now, a group of scientists may have found a way to give that memory-storing process a boost, by delivering precisely timed electric zaps to the brain at the exact right moments of sleep. These zaps, the researchers found, can improve memory.
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And to make matters even more interesting, the team of researchers was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. agency tasked with developing technology for the military. They reported their findings July 23 in The Journal of Neuroscience.
The study involved 16 healthy adults from the Albuquerque, New Mexico, area. The first night, no experiments were run; instead, it was simply an opportunity for the participants to get accustomed to spending the night in the sleep lab while wearing the lumpy stimulation cap designed to deliver the tiny zaps to their brains. Indeed, when the researchers started the experiment, "our biggest worry [was] whether our subjects [could] sleep with all those wires," Pilly told Live Science.
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The next night, the experiment began: Before the participants fell asleep, they were shown war-like scenes and were asked to spot the location of certain targets, such as hidden bombs or snipers.
Then, the participants went to sleep, wearing the stimulation cap that not only delivered zaps but also measured brain activity using a device called an electroencephalogram (EEG). On the first night of the experiment, half of the participants received brain zaps, and half did not.
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Using measurements from the EEG, the researchers aimed their electric zaps at a specific type of brain activity called "slow-wave oscillations." These oscillations — which can be thought of as bursts of neuron activity that come...
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