Could a smartphone app boost memory?

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A smartphone app called HippoCamera can help us strengthen our memory. Image credit: Mascot/Getty Images.
  • A new study by researchers at the University of Toronto has revealed a smartphone app that can strengthen memories of life events.
  • The app is designed to benefit people with memory impairment by mimicking the function of the hippocampus as it helps consolidate memories.
  • The app involves recording life events and replaying them to lock them down as memories.

As we age, our ability to remember life events declines, especially in people with memory loss or diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

A new study by researchers at the University of Toronto explains that some people may be able to successfully consolidate their memories through a smartphone-based app.

The app helps by mimicking the behavior of the brain’s hippocampus. Researchers believe that the hippocampus repeats memories at a higher speed than the rest of the brain, helping to stabilize them for long-term memory.

The app is called HippoCamera.

Researchers found that people who used the app for two weeks experienced a 56% increase in their ability to recall details of events recorded with the HippoCamera. People who used it for 70 consecutive days saw an 84% increase.

HippoCamera is available for Apple’s iPhone and iPad, but is not yet functional for non-research use. Its developers are expected to release the app soon.

appears in the study PNAS.

Much of what we as humans relate to is our lifetime memories, perhaps the most enduring possessions we acquire. These memories also constitute the experiences on which we base the way we interact with the world each day.

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People with memory loss have difficulty navigating the world, losing confidence because they can’t remember how it works. Additionally, a person may lose an important aspect of their identity by forgetting part of who they were, leading to feelings of isolation from family and friends.

While the HippoCamera helps people remember only the specific memories it records, its value may be broader than that, said the study’s lead author, Dr. Chris Martin, a cognitive neuroscientist at Florida State University, said.

“If you can remember a particular moment from your recent past well, you will have a stronger mental bridge between your present and past self.”

Among its potential benefits, he said, could be the ability to deepen relationships between HippoCamera users and those who participate in recorded events, as a result of a renewed ability to remember and share experiences.

The senior researcher of the study Prof. Morgan D. Barrens, is a cognitive neuropsychologist at the University of Toronto. He suggests that the app can promote new memory habits:

“We also hope it will get people into the habit of focusing on their memories, and understanding that there are very simple things we can do to preserve our memories of events in our lives.”

In one experiment, participants recorded five 24-second clips of daily events over two weeks using a HippoCamera. As they captured each event, they also recorded an eight-second audio description of its significance.

Subjects were instructed to replay six previously recorded events each day over a 2-week period. They received reminders from the app to do so.

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When playing back a video, text appeared briefly onscreen stating how much time had passed when the event was recorded, along with its date.

The video was then played at triple speed — mimicking the hippocampus’ own high-speed playback — with the recorded description of the event played at normal speed.

The researchers conducted a second test designed to better represent real-world, self-directed use of the app. In this experiment, subjects recorded only one event each day, and replayed one event for 10 weeks.

Immediately after both experiments, the researchers conducted memory tests in which the participants watched their clips while their brain activity was monitored using fMRI. The researchers compared their scores to baseline tests administered at the beginning of each experiment.

The scans revealed that when the events were replayed, there was increased activity in the hippocampus, and there was a positive correlation between the degree of this activity and the number of details the participant remembered.

Three months after each experiment, participants were tested again with fMRI scans. However, this time, they didn’t have access to the app, relying strictly on their memories.

On these later tests, people scored slightly better on the first use than they did immediately after using the app, improving from 55.8% to 58.9% compared to their baseline scores.

Those in the second group, however, showed a decrease in scores, from an initial 83.8% improvement to a later 56% score.

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“Hippocampal replay,” said Prof Barnes, “is thought to strengthen memory consolidation and stabilize memories in the long term.”

“With the hippocamera, we’re hoping to induce or prompt hippocampal replay, so that the memory of these events can be preserved,” she added.

Prof. Daniel L. Schatter, a psychologist and researcher in the cognitive neuroscience of memory at Harvard University, was not involved in the study.

Although he told us that “[t]The science behind this application is solid – researchers used rigorous experimental designs and analyzes to support their claims and link cognitive memory effects to neural changes in the hippocampus, a brain region known to play an important role in memory retrieval. .”

Dr. Barense also noted that playback in the HippoCamera is configured to be as evocative as possible, “so watching the HippoCamera cues brings back memories for much more than what’s shown on video.”

In addition to remembering details, she said, participants “feel, what happened next, who was there — all that extra information will come back as well.”

The participants told the researchers that the habits they formed using the HippoCamera meant “they start to notice little things in their lives that they didn’t appreciate before,” Dr. Berense noted.

Besides, Prof. Although a person’s memory of events outside the hippocampus recording may remain uncertain, “extended memory of reactivated experiences using the app can make a meaningful difference in a forgetful person’s life,” Schatter said.

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