Elderly people who are losing their memory could be helped by using a magnetic field to stimulate part of their brain, a study has shown.
The effect lasts at least 24 hours after the stimulation is given, improving the ability of volunteers to remember words linked to photos of faces.
Scientists believe the discovery could lead to new treatments for loss of memory function caused by ageing, strokes, head injuries and early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr Joel Voss, the lead researcher from Northwestern University in Chicago, said: “We show for the first time that you can specifically change memory functions of the brain in adults without surgery or drugs, which have not proven effective. This non-invasive stimulation has tremendous potential.”
The scientists focused on associative memory, the ability to learn and remember relationships between unrelated items. A total of 16 volunteers aged 21 to 40 took part in the study, agreeing to undergo 20 minutes of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) every day for five days.
TMS directs a magnetic field at a specific area of the skull to induce weak electrical currents in the brain. It is used to test brain circuits in patients with stroke, multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease and other conditions, and has been shown to alleviate some forms of depression.
At the start of a series of tests, participants were shown 20 photos of human faces while at the same time hearing words being read aloud.
“They remembered more face-word pairings after the stimulation than before, which means their learning ability improved,” Dr Voss said. “That didn’t happen for the placebo condition or in another control experiment with additional subjects.” The results are published in the latest edition of the journal Science.
Dr Voss added: “This opens up a whole new area for treatment studies; we will try to see if we can improve function in people who really need it.”
But he cautioned that “years” of more research were needed to determine whether the technique was safe or effective enough to help people with Alzheimer’s or other conditions that affected memory.