A new non-invasive technique to treat memory loss in Alzheimer’s patients could provide hope for those battling the disease. Scientists at Northwestern University in Chicago have been zapping the brains of sufferers with magnets and found they boosted mental function.
During the research, 16 participants had a large coil put against their scalp and the magnetic field then stimulates the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain containing grey matter, which is responsible for memory.
The scientists discovered that the patients were better able to remember connections between photographs in the aftermath of the treatment and that the effect lasted 24 hours. The findings could represent a breakthrough in treating age-related conditions, such as dementia, strokes and even head injuries.
Dr Joel Voss, professor at Northwestern and senior author of the study, said: “Being able to manipulate the memory network in this very specific way certainly holds promise in the ability to intervene in disorders of memory, which occur for a variety of reasons.
“The fact we can use non-invasive stimulation to increase excitability in this targeted brain network means we're making the network do more of what it naturally does to succeed at memory formation.”
Researchers all over the world have been trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, but have so far not succeeded. Most of these efforts have centred around surgery and drugs, but have not proven effective, with many of the procedures being risky for the patient involved.
The magnetic technique is much safer and has the potential to be tested on a broad cross section of the population relatively easily. Such trials would help to better understand its applications with the view to making it a received form of treatment.
Specific areas of the brain are targeted in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), to promote weak electrical currents. It has been used with stroke patients, those with motor neurone disease and multiple sclerosis to test their brain circuits and has even been found to reduce certain types of depression.
Undergoing MRI scans while playing memory games, the individuals in the study had their brain activity measured. Dr Voss’s team noted that the performance improved when they had undergone a period of brain stimulation using the method.
Dr Voss added: “If you think about the brain's memory network as generating one unit of activity every time it tries to memorize a picture, brain stimulation made it so that now the same type of picture would generate two units of activity.
“This increase in activity means stimulation enhanced excitability - and that's important because excitability is a marker for good memory formation.”
The 16 volunteers in the experiment were given TMS treatment on a number of consecutive days before being asked to play a game that assessed their associative contextual memory. As well as being compared to their performance prior to the TMS, they were also gender and age matched to other who hadn’t had the procedure, who acted as controls.
TMS has been described as feeling like a gentle tapping at 20 beats per second and is carried out for 20 minutes at a time. Although more research needs to be done to investigate the applications of the treatment, it could spell hope for thousands of Alzheimer’s patients.