New research from Boston University shows that zapping the brain with an electrical current can reduce memory decline tied to aging. BU researcher Dr. Robert Reinhart worked on the study. He spoke with WGBH Radio’s Aaron Schachter about the results. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Aaron Schachter: So first off, if this electrical current treatment that you just did works out, it sounds like it could be a big deal. How did you figure out that electrical currents might help out?

Robert Reinhart: We agree, we're really optimistic. It's still just a first pass, and kind of a proof of principle study. But we're optimistic that it could have direct clinical relevance for people with Alzheimer's or related dementias. The way we worked it out was, well, it begins with decades of basic science research suggesting that the brain communicates through rhythmic fluctuations of neuronal activity. So we can target a brain circuit that's resonating in a certain frequency with external alternating current that we tune our stimulator to oscillate at a certain frequency. And then we can deliver that current at the specific frequency that the brain networks oscillate at, and that way get very precise targeting of the brain circuits that we want to target that have been implicated in working memory.

Schachter: Why do older people have a harder time with memory?

Reinhart: One thing we know is that the working memory, or immediate memory, lives in the frontal lobe and in the cortex of our brains, the most evolutionarily advanced parts, that make us special as humans. This part of the brain is important for higher mental abilities that, as amazing as these abilities are, they come online relatively late in the developmental process — in your mid to late 20s — and they're also the first to show a gradual decline across the adult lifespan.

Schachter: So you talk there about the working memory. How does that differ from other forms of memory?

Reinhart: So the working memory is where you hold information in mind over a period of seconds, as compared with, say, a long-term memory, where you're storing information for hours, days, years, a lifetime. So it's kind of where your consciousness lives, and it's been regarded famously as a kind of workbench or sketchpad of the mind. It's kind of an active buffer where you actively work on information, store information, over a period of seconds.

Schachter: So this does or doesn't affect that kind of behavior we see with people with Alzheimer's or dementia, where they repeat questions several minutes later or forget names or things like that?

Reinhart: Alzheimer's is characterized by a constellation of deficits, including the episodic or declarative long-term memory deficits that you're referring to. But also the working memory, or the short-term or immediate memory deficits also make up a major feature of the symptoms of this illness. And there's also overlap between the brain systems that support a working memory and the brain systems that support long-term memory.

Schachter: Electricity and the brain sort of brings to mind older treatments that have been looked upon harshly these days. Are there safety concerns with this?

Reinhart: Certainly, but it’s not electroshock therapy or ECT. This is orders of magnitude weaker; this is an extremely weak electrical current. It's so weak that you can barely feel it.

Schachter: Well I'm starting already to lose my keys with some frequency, so the next time you try this out, give me a call.

Reinhart: [laughs] Absolutely.

Schachter: Dr. Reinhart was telling us about his research that found electrical currents delivered to the brain can improve memory loss tied to aging.