New research suggests that harmonizing our aging brain waves may help us store new memories for the long-term, but it’s a notion that becomes less useful the older we get.
Memories are elusive here in Geezerville, an irony that is not lost upon folks like me for whom the past often seems to offer more inspiration than the present. I can’t tell you how many times My Lovely Wife and I have had our spirits lifted by shifting from discussing everyday matters to recalling episodes from our life as young parents or struggling entrepreneurs or clueless newlyweds. And how those recollections gradually become clouded as the years go by.
How old is the cat our daughter rescued from the horse barn up in Forest Lake? Did she have her driver’s permit then? When did she get her license? What car were we driving then? And who was the kid who glommed onto our son in first grade? He was related in some way to that community activist our friend Tim always stays with when he’s in town. You know, that guy who showed up out of the blue at that soccer game.
Give me a minute. It’s on the tip of my tongue.
Scientists have long sought to uncover the mysteries of memory and why it begins to fail us as we pass through the foggy corridors of middle age. Recent investigations have focused on the way sleep affects the brain.
Last month, University of California, Berkeley, researchers released a study suggesting that geezers struggle to remember because our slow brain waves aren’t synchronizing with their faster counterparts during non-REM sleep. This lack of harmony disrupts the transfer of short-term memories to the part of the brain that stores recollections for the long haul.
“It’s like a drummer that’s perhaps just one beat off the rhythm,” study coauthor Matt Walker, PhD, author of Why We Sleep, tells National Public Radio. “The aging brain just doesn’t seem to be able to synchronize its brain waves effectively.”
That’s probably because the brain’s medial frontal cortex tends to atrophy as we grow old and can disrupt the wave harmony — even if dementia hasn’t yet set in. Walker and his team suggest they may be able overcome that by zapping forgetful geezer brains with acoustic, electrical, or magnetic pulses. “What we’re going to try and do is act like a metronome and in doing so see if we can actually salvage aspects of learning and memory in older adults and those with dementia,” he explains.
This approach may not be as far-fetched as skeptics like me might assume. Northwestern University researchers last year reported that gentle acoustic sounds, when synchronized to the rhythm of brain waves, boosted deep sleep among older study participants and improved their ability to recall information.
The sound of a rushing waterfall, for instance, seems to have accelerated participants’ slow brain waves, possibly bringing them into closer alignment with their fast waves. “This is a potential tool for enhancing memory in older populations and attenuating normal age-related memory decline,” lead study author Phyllis Zee, PhD, said in a statement released by the university.
I mentioned this research to My Lovely Wife the other day, when we weren’t reliving the good old days. She pondered it for a moment before suggesting that the whole idea of constantly updating our memory banks might not be a priority if and when we hit our 90s. “Thirty years from now,” she ventured, “storing new memories for the long term is not going to be that useful.”
She has a point, one that University of Wisconsin, Madison, scientists explored way back in 2003. Biologists Giuliani Tononi and Chiara Corelli argued that the whole reason why we snooze is to forget. We take in so much neural stimuli each day, they explained, that the brain voluntarily deletes some of it when we sleep in order to quiet things down.
This makes a lot of sense to me. I mean, there’s only so much worth remembering. Like the name of that guy who showed up out of the blue at the soccer game in South Minneapolis. Or was it in Blaine?