Memory study tests electrical stimulation technique

A psychology professor has been researching techniques to address naming difficulties.

A psychology professor has been researching techniques to address naming difficulties.

Assistant psychology professor Ingrid Olson has been studying the effects of electric stimulation on the brain, specifically the part related to name association.

The technique Olson has been testing is called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS.

The process involves placing one electrode around the part of the brain being stimulated in the study, and then placing another electrode on the face to create a circuit. There is no shocking at all, and most subjects only feel a little bit of heat. Patients do not experience pain or side effects, Olson said.

Ingrid Olson, assistant psychology professor, studies the effects of electric stimulation on the part of the brain that is related to name association. Olson said the technique is rarely used. IAN WATSON TTN

“It’s a technique that very few people use and very few people know about. I know about four labs in the U.S. that use it,” Olson said.

Olson has been studying the effects of tDCS on the anterior temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain attributed with naming deficits.

“Let’s say you get a brain lesion … You have a tumor [and] a surgeon takes it out. You’re missing one of your anterior temporal lobes. One of the after-effects of the surgery is problems recollecting people’s names, like your kids, your brother and sister,” Olson said.

Based on lesion evidence, Olsen said, this part of the brain plays an important role in recollecting names.

Olson said she became interested in researching this part of the brain because so many people encounter problems remembering names.

The test subjects were asked to recall names of common people and buildings while being stimulated by the tDCS.

“Some of them are easy. For example, everybody, when they see a picture of JFK, knows it’s JFK, but then some of them are harder,” Olson said. “For example, British actors or the British prime minister – Americans have seen these people before, but it’s hard to remember their names.”

“So, those are the ones that the stimulation really helped. Those kind of names where you know you know it, but you just can’t bring it to mind. This sort of brain stimulation helps to bring it to awareness,” she added.

Each subject is brought in for three testing sessions: two testing sessions for the left and right sides of the brain and a third testing session for what is called the “sham condition,” or the placebo-testing session.

Olson said the next step will be to test this new technique on older patients.

“As you get older, [name recall is] a problem that tends to get worse,” Olson said.

After she tests older people, Olson said she hopes to be able to perform a long-term study with the tDCS technique.

“Right now, when you do it, the effects only last during the laboratory testing,” Olson said, explaining that subjects make strides in the laboratory, but they are not lasting.

“So, it’d be nice [to] find a way to perhaps use this electrical stimulation for a few weeks to improve [subjects’] memory permanently,” Olson said.

Researchers are also studying this technique in other types of memory disorders and even clinical disorders, like depression.

The next planned study is to look at the effects of tDCS on taking risks. Olson said she believes this type of stimulation may be able to change risk-taking behaviors.

“It would be especially interesting if we could get permission to do it in teenagers because teenagers take a lot of risks,” Olson said.

Lily Fronden can be reached at

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