— An artificial memory aid that mimics the way the human brain replays verbal information could help people with brain damage, Alzheimer's or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), researchers say.
The handheld device is modelled on a function of the brain known as the "phonological loop", which uses short snippets of acoustic information as a memory cue. For example, it provides a way to remember a name before writing it down, and is the reason why songs sometimes become stuck in a person's mind.
The memory device has a speaker, a microphone and controls for recording and playing audio. To use it, a user presses 'record' and says a phrase they want to keep in mind. The aid repeats this phrase at intervals of two minutes or, in another mode, it prompts the user to repeat the phrase at the similar intervals, repeatedly bugging them if they fail to do so.
"This could help people with ADHD, Alzheimer's or brain injuries that impair working (short-term) memory," says Daniel Bogen, who created the device at the University of Pennsylvania, in the US. "They can have trouble keeping track of what they are doing that information just disappears from their mind."
The brain's phonological loop "records" short clips of speech and uses an inner voice to repeatedly replay them. The phrase might be generated by the brain itself, or by another person in conversation.
People with an impaired phonological loop frequently forget a task because the words disappear from their working memory. Most people have experienced the same effect when overloaded with tasks.
Tests involving the memory aid on a small number of people without memory problems have been positive, Bogen says. "They tried it out in a variety of situations and said that it did help keep track of what they were doing," he says.
Users sometimes found the repetitive cues irritating, if their memory was not being stretched. But they also reported that the device was helpful when faced with a lot of tasks to do in a short period of time.
Bogen notes that the hardware required is extremely simple. "It could be made the size of a cellphone," he says, "we also think a wrist-watch-like version might be a good idea."
Norman Alm at Dundee University in Scotland works on technologies designed to help people with dementia and is impressed. "This is an intriguing idea, which may help us learn more about how memory works by building an artificial version of part of it and trying it out," he told New Scientist.
One of the problems with building technologies to assist with mental disabilities is our hazy knowledge of how the human mind works, Alm adds. "So little is known that we just have to try things out," he explains. "Whether this imaginative system can help people with impairments of working memory will have to be determined by actual evaluations with such people."
Bogen hopes to perform trials of this kind before long: "I think it could definitely help some people," he says. "Making a difference to even just 20% with working memory problems would be great."