POST TIME: 21 April, 2019 12:33:07 AM
Magnet 'zap' to the brain might jumpstart aging memory

Magnet 'zap' to the 
brain might jumpstart 
aging memory

Folks start forgetting things as they get older, like where they put their car keys or what they had for breakfast. But their memories might get a boost from an electromagnetic device that gives the brain a helpful zap, a new study reports. A small group of older people experienced improved memory function after five daily sessions with the device, to the point that they were performing memory tasks as well as a "control" group of young adults.

"After receiving stimulation, they were no longer worse than young individuals performing the same task," said lead researcher Joel Voss. He is an associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. The process, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, is already approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to help people suffering from depression, Voss said.

The researchers wondered whether such magnetic stimulation might help invigorate regions of the brain associated with memory, particularly the hippocampus. That's the brain region that atrophies as people grow older, and it is suspected to be responsible for memory decline.

So, the investigators recruited 15 people aged 64 to 80 with normal age-related memory problems, and used magnetic stimulation on specific brain regions targeted with the help of an MRI brain scan.

The stimulation took place in half-hour sessions on five consecutive days, Voss said. It essentially involves researchers placing a figure-8-shaped magnetic coil against the head of each patient.

"This uses a magnetic field that you turn on and off really, really fast," Voss said. "That induces electrical activity at a distance. There's no electricity passing through their skull or anything like that."

The hippocampus is too deep inside the brain for the magnetic fields to penetrate, so the team instead targeted an area of the parietal lobe -- behind and slightly above the left ear -- that is highly connected to the hippocampus, he explained.

The test subjects then were brought back after a day's rest to see if the magnets had any lasting effect on the brain.

Prior to the experiment, the older study participants performed worse on memory tasks than a group of young adults with an average age of 25.

The older folks got about 40 per cent of questions right, compared to 55 per cent  correct, the researchers said.

But after stimulation, the seniors tested on par with their younger counterparts, the findings showed.

"Activity in the hippocampal network went up as a function of stimulation, suggesting that the network is doing a better job of building memories after receiving stimulation," Voss said.

Among the older study participants, the ability to recall memories improved 31 per cent, and on average they were able to correctly answer 43 out of 84 questions on a memory test -- versus 33 out of 84  before stimulation.

Unfortunately, the effect did not last. A one-week follow-up test showed that the memory improvements had dissipated, Voss said.

It's possible that by stimulating people for longer periods, or changing up the stimulation in some way, memory improvement could be longer-lasting, he suggested.