Forgetfulness and memory decline can become an issue for some people as they get older and researchers may now be one step closer to finding a treatment for these cognitive issues.
A new study published in the Neurology Journal explains researchers from the American Academy of Neurology have developed a non-invasive device that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to temporarily improve age-related memory loss. The transcranial magnetic stimulation temporarily increases activity in the hippocampal-cortical network – regions of the brain that help create, store and retrieve memories.
An electromagnetic coil that is held next to the scalp delivers short bursts of magnetic energy to targeted areas of the brain and study participants temporarily scored better on memory tests after receiving stimulation.
“As we get older, our brains age too and these changes mean our brain may not work as efficiently, so it is normal to experience some mild forgetfulness,” study author Joel L. Voss said in a statement. “With stimulation, we were able to essentially excite the areas of the brain that are involved in memory formation in older adults, improving their ability to recall items as well as younger adults.”
While the study didn’t examine stimulation in people with serious conditions such as mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease, participants with an average age of 72 who had normal thinking skills but impaired memory at the start of the study received the stimulation once a day for five days in a row as part of the trial. The following week they received stimulation at a dose not high enough to have any effect, but didn’t know which treatment they were receiving.
Participants were given a memory test at the start of the study, one day after treatment ended and again one week after the end of treatment. Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the brain activity of each participant.
A day after treatment ended, participants’ ability to recall memories improved 31 percent when compared to their abilities at the beginning of the study. Participants answered an average of 33 out of 84 questions correctly before stimulation, but answered 10 more after stimulation.
Researchers noted there were no differences a week after stimulation and when participants received the sham treatment.
“Disruption and abnormal functioning of the hippocampal-cortical network, the region of the brain involved in memory formation, has been linked to age-related memory decline, so it’s exciting to see that by targeting this region, magnetic stimulation may help improve memory in older adults,” Voss said. “These results may help us better understand how this network supports memory.”
The main purpose of the study was to assess which areas of the brain should be targeted with stimulation and not to evaluate how effective the treatment may be. It was also a small study of just 15 participants, with researchers acknowledging the need to assess whether stimulation shows similar results in bigger groups of people, if memory gains can be retained over longer periods of time and if the stimulation can help people with more severe damage to the memory formation network in the brain.