Putting brains in rhythm to boost memory (and all sorts of other stuff)

Nature gets into the groove with a piece on oscillations – the natural flickering rhythm of brainwaves, and how flashing lights and electric zaps can change the brain’s rhythms to treat Alzheimer’s, improve focus, and more:

In March 2015, Li-Huei Tsai set up a tiny disco for some of the mice in her laboratory. For an hour each day, she placed them in a box lit only by a flickering strobe. The mice — which had been engineered to produce plaques of the peptide amyloid-β in the brain, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease — crawled about curiously. When Tsai later dissected them, those that had been to the mini dance parties had significantly lower levels of plaque than mice that had spent the same time in the dark.

Tsai, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, says she checked the result; then checked it again. “For the longest time, I didn’t believe it,” she says. Her team had managed to clear amyloid from part of the brain with a flickering light. The strobe was tuned to 40 hertz and was designed to manipulate the rodents’ brainwaves, triggering a host of biological effects that eliminated the plaque-forming proteins.

Now, a growing body of evidence, including Tsai’s findings, hint at a meaningful connection to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. The work offers the possibility of forestalling or even reversing the damage caused by such conditions without using a drug. More than two dozen clinical trials are aiming to modulate brainwaves in some way — some with flickering lights or rhythmic sounds, but most through the direct application of electrical currents to the brain or scalp. They aim to treat everything from insomnia to schizophrenia and premenstrual dysphoric disorder.

Randolph Helfrich at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues devised a way to enhance or reduce gamma oscillations of around 40 hertz using a non-invasive technique called transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS). By tweaking these oscillations, they were able to influence whether a person perceived a video of moving dots as travelling vertically or horizontally.

People with Alzheimer’s disease show a reduction in gamma oscillations5. So Tsai and others wondered whether gamma-wave activity could be restored, and whether this would have any effect on the disease.

They started by using optogenetics, in which brain cells are engineered to respond directly to a flash of light. In 2009, Tsai’s team, in collaboration with Christopher Moore, also at MIT at the time, demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to use the technique to drive gamma oscillations in a specific part of the mouse brain6.

Tsai and her colleagues subsequently found that tinkering with the oscillations sets in motion a host of biological events. It initiates changes in gene expression that cause microglia — immune cells in the brain — to change shape. The cells essentially go into scavenger mode, enabling them to better dispose of harmful clutter in the brain, such as amyloid-β. [Walter Koroshetz, director of the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland,] says that the link to neuroimmunity is new and striking. “The role of immune cells like microglia in the brain is incredibly important and poorly understood, and is one of the hottest areas for research now,” he says.

If the technique was to have any therapeutic relevance, however, Tsai and her colleagues had to find a less-invasive way of manipulating brainwaves. Flashing lights at specific frequencies has been shown to influence oscillations in some parts of the brain, so the researchers turned to strobe lights.