If you want to improve your memory in the future, you might do so with electrodes on your head. A barely perceptible electric current makes our brain cells learn faster. Researchers at the KU Leuven Brain Institute are conducting promising research that could help patients with memory problems.
The 100 billion nerve cells in your brain are capable of learning new actions or storing new information throughout the rest of your life. This is possible because neurons are always making new connections to other brain cells. This process, where the brain is constantly changing its structure, is called neuroplasticity. Thanks to neuroplasticity, connections between brain cells become stronger if you do something every day, but if you don’t do something often, you might lose or forget something as the connections weaken over time. Practice does indeed make perfect!
The fact that our brains make and reform connections so quickly offers many advantages. If you go blind your brain loses input, but compensates for it through other senses such as the sense of touch. In fact, an additional boost of neuroplasticity would be welcome for various medical problems. There are many conditions for which would be worthwhile to temporarily increase brain activity in certain areas, or vice versa. This includes depression, epilepsy, chronic pain, post-stroke rehabilitation, and memory problems. The question for researchers and doctors, then, is which methods can best influence brain activity.
Several methods exist to stimulate the brain. One of them, for example, is electric current. It’s an old idea, including the familiar use of electroconvulsive therapy for psychiatric patients. The problem is that you need a high voltage. Psychiatry still uses it – successfully – but under anaesthesia. For other conditions, the more user-friendly transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) is now preferred, where two electrodes are attached to the head. The electric current passing through is very small; you only feel a slight tingling.
With our research in Leuven, we now have evidence that brain stimulation with very light electrical currents can indeed influence brain activity.
But we’re actually playing blind, explains neurophysiologist Peter Janssen, leader of a research project on neuroplasticity and brain stimulation in memory problems at the KU Leuven Brain Institute. ‘We don't know exactly what brain stimulation with electric current will change in our brains. You can calculate it with computer models, but in the end you have to actually check what happens in the brain. If we carry out tests on animals with implanted electrodes, we see clear effects on brain cells. With our research in Leuven, we now have evidence that brain stimulation with very light electrical currents can indeed influence brain activity.’
At the same time, the Leuven study is also determining how the electrode method could be further improved. ‘With two electrodes glued to the head, it’s mainly the skin that’s conducting the electricity. That probably has little effect on the brain cells. We’re therefore working on a new technique at the KU Leuven Brain Institute of implanting the electrodes on the skull just under the skin. The same amount of electricity then has a greater effect.’
Together with the research center Imec, the researchers are now developing a chip that can be applied under the skin. ‘The idea is no longer that futuristic. The current chips are small enough and have enough battery. So such a chip is feasible and also has its own advantages: it’s affordable, and the intervention itself is small, without much risk or burden for the patient.’
In the long term, researchers hope to be able to help older people with incipient memory problems with such a chip. ‘Once someone has dementia, it’s often too late, the brain is already too badly damaged. We hope to be able to intervene at an early stage and to delay dementia by perhaps five to ten years. But it will certainly take another ten years before this form of brain stimulation can become a standard treatment.’
Professor Janssen's research at the KU Leuven Brain Institute falls under the Mission Lucidity research arm, an initiative of Alzheimer's specialist Bart De Strooper and geriatric psychiatrist Mathieu Vandenbulcke, that bundles research into neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. ‘You don't often see an institute that brings together all the research on neurodegeneration across the various disciplines. That’s our advantage in the international arena.’
Nevertheless, the institute exists for more than just dementia research, Janssen emphasizes. Janssen’s colleagues are working on visual prostheses, to help blind people see again with the aid of electrodes, and on brain-machine interfaces, through which paralyzed people can operate a robot with their thoughts. ‘Brain imaging at the molecular level or artificial intelligence are also on the table. But each project is of the type that you can only approach in a multidisciplinary manner.’
That we are all together in a consortium within the institute, and also physically close to each other, makes Leuven really unique.
‘Foreign colleagues often ask me how we manage to get scientists from the university, doctors from UZ Leuven and engineers from Imec together around the same table. That we are all together in a consortium within the institute, and also physically close to each other, makes Leuven really unique.’
KU Leuven Brain Institute
The KU Leuven Brain Institute (Leuven Brain Institute – LBI) is a meeting place for scientists who conduct brain research throughout the university: biomedical scientists, biologists, psychologists, engineers and computer scientists. The goal is to expand knowledge about the nervous system through new collaborations and to make the general public more aware of the importance of neuroscience research.