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Brain stimulation improves memory

hippocampusAre you forgetful?

If you find yourself sometimes struggling to remember things as you grow older, there may be a new, non-invasive treatment available soon. Targetted brain stimulation is a relatively new area of study that’s showing impressive results.

Brain stimulation could be the answer

Researchers at Northwestern Medical School found that stimulating the area of the brain that communicates with the hippocampus dramatically improves the memory of older people who suffer from age-related memory loss.

โ€œOlder peopleโ€™s memory got better up to the level that we could no longer tell them apart from younger peopleโ€, said lead investigator Joel Voss, associate professor at Northwestern University School of Medicine.

Nearly everyone experiences some sort of memory loss as they age. Specifically, older adults have trouble linking two unrelated things together into a memory. Examples of this are new contacts’ names, where they left keys or why they went upstairs (we’ve all been there!). This is thought to be because the hippocampus atrophies as we age.

The Study into Brain Stimulation

Studies carried out by Northwestern University School of Medicine involved 16 people, aged between 64 and 80 years old. The study group complained of normal age-related memory problems.

Initially, the test group and a group of younger adults took memory tasks that focussed on relations between paired things. The younger group scored 55 percent and the older adults scored 40 percent.

Researchers used fMRI (functional MRI) to view the hippocampus and noted the activity levels. They then targetted an area of the parietal lobe that communicates with the hippocampus and delivered stimulus as it isn’t possible to target the hippocampus directly with the non-invasive treatment. This is because it is too deep within the brain for magnetic fields to reach.

Participants in the study received 20 minutes of high-frequency repetitive magnetic brain stimulation for five consecutive days.

The Results

After the treatment, the research team used fMRI to view the hippocampus again. They found it was more active than prior to the brain stimulation. They also gave participants another memory test, similar to the one taken prior to the treatment. After the brain stimulation, the older group of adults scored the same percentage as the younger group.

Incredibly, the results were also validated using a test group who received fake stimulation. This group showed no improvements in the memory test and no notable changes on the fMRI. This effectively rules out a placebo effect.

Joel Voss commented that he is unsure how long the improvements will last after the magnetic brain stimulation. He suggested that the results may last longer with more magnetic brain stimulation applied and notes when depression is treated with TMS for five weeks, the results last for many months.

The Future for Brain Stimulation

He plans to test the process on adults with mild cognitive impairment, the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. A breakthrough in this area would be life-changing for millions of people around the world. The World Health Organisation predicts Alzheimer’s could affect more than 115.4 million people by 2050 and this is triple the amount who currently suffer from the condition. With the world poised on the brink of this crisis, studies into magnetic brain stimulation are hugely welcome.

The study appears in the journal, ‘Neurology’.

Source: Northwestern University

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