Imagine you’re about to have to do something horrible or embarrasing, like say, admitting that you read Neuroskeptic. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to switch off your memory for a while, so you at least didn’t have to remember it?
Well, now you can, as long as you have electrodes implanted in your brain. Lacruz et al, based at London’s Institute of Psychiatry, report that Single pulse electrical stimulation of the hippocampus is sufficient to impair human episodic memory.
They took 12 people who were undergoing neurosurgery for severe epilepsy, and found that giving a single brief electrical pulse to the hippocampus caused momentary amnesia. Patients were much less likely to remember seeing a word or a picture presented immediately (within 150 milliseconds) after the pulse.
It only worked if you zapped the hippocampus on both the left and the right side simultaneously; if you only disrupt one, memory is unaffected, suggesting that one can compensate for the lack of the other.
It’s been known for 60 years that damage to the hippocampus causes amnesia (e.g.), and previous electrode stimulation studies have shown amnesia after a few minutes of repeated shocks, but this is the first study to show that a single pulse can cause ultra-short memory impairment.
Follow up work confirmed that the stimulation only affected memory, rather than the perception of the items. Stimulation immediately before asking people to remember the items had no effect, showing that the hippocampus is only required for encoding, not retrieval.
This is a great study which adds to our knowledge of the memory functions of the hippocampus – although we need to avoid the temptation to see the hippocampus as purely a “memory module”, since it’s also known to be involved in space perception.
It’s also a good example of why epilepsy patients are the unsung heroes of modern neuroscience – because they’re basically the only people in whom it’s ethical to do this kind of experiments. Surgeons need to stimulate their brains in order to optimize their treatment. It would be unethical to open someone’s skull and poke around their grey matter purely for research purposes, but given that it’s going to happen anyway for medical reasons, you might as well do a little research too…
Lacruz ME, Valentín A, Seoane JJ, Morris RG, Selway RP, & Alarcón G (2010). Single pulse electrical stimulation of the hippocampus is sufficient to impair human episodic memory. Neuroscience PMID: 20643192