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VIDEO: The Military Discovered A Way To Boost Soldiers' Memories, And We Tried It

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An experiment funded by the U.S. military meant to sharpen soldiers' minds for the battlefield has found a way to improve memory: by zapping subjects' brains with tiny bursts of electricity during sleep.

In a multi-year study at the University of New Mexico, volunteers received a fraction of 9-volt battery's worth of electrical stimulation to their scalps while they slept at the lab. When they woke up, they were asked to play a video game they had learned the day before. Turns out that subjects were significantly better at it after the night spent in the lab.

In episode 6 of Future You, we try the experiment, and consider its implications for the future: What will it mean when we can learn faster and remember better simply by zapping our brains? And what if someone can overwrite our memory and manipulate what's real?

The DARPA-funded research featured here wasn't the work of UNM scientists alone. A team of researchers came together like the Justice League of memory-enhancers. The California-based science and engineering lab, HRL, a team at Rutgers University Newark, the University of Southern California, Cardiff University, and the University of California-Berkeley all played roles in the multi-site project.

Our entire Future You season is dedicated to the human body and what it will be able to do in 2050. You can find the latest episodes on YouTube or npr.org/futureyou. And send us your ideas about upgrading humans by email at futureyou@npr.org or through Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 21, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of the video incorrectly referred to the neurostimulation used in the experiment as transcranial direct current stimulation. In fact, the experiment uses transcranial alternating current stimulation.
Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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