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 U.S. 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 percent of questions right, compared to 55 percent correct, the researchers said.
But after stimulation, the seniors tested on par with their younger counterparts, the findings showed.
The report was published online April 17 in the journal Neurology.
"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%, 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.
The device is very expensive, but its use in depression has already created a model by which people come by daily for therapeutic stimulation, Voss noted.
This is one of a number of approaches that use noninvasive methods to interact with the brain, said Rebecca Edelmayer, director of scientific engagement at the Alzheimer's Association.
This device currently is used to treat depression, and electrodes that provide electrical stimulation to the brain are used to help ease the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, Edelmayer said.
A study published just last week in the journal Nature Neuroscience used electrodes attached to a special EEG, electroencephalogram, cap to improve working memory in older adults, by helping different brain regions better harmonize with each other.
"The idea we could have something that's not necessarily a drug but something that could help with neuronal communication certainly may be a direction forward for therapies for those living with neurodegenerative disease," Edelmayer said.
However, Edelmayer noted this was a very small study, and it needs to be replicated before there's enough evidence to support this as a treatment for age-related memory loss.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about transcranial magnetic stimulation.
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