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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Electric current to boost memory

Researchers have found that stimulating the brain using magnetic pulses can improve memory. The breakthrough may help treat memory disorders from injury and stroke 

Stimulating a particular region in the brain via non-in vasive delivery of electrical current using magnetic pulses, called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), improves memory, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study. The discovery opens a new field of possibilities for treating memory impairments caused by conditions such as stroke, early-stage Alzheimer's disease, traumatic brain injury, cardiac arrest and the memory problems that occur in healthy aging.

“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,“ said senior author Joel Voss. “This noninvasive stimulation improves the ability to learn new things. It has tremendous potential for treating memory disorders.“

The study was published in the journal Science.

The study also is the first to demonstrate that remembering events requires a collection of many brain regions to work in concert with a key memory structure called the hippocampus ­ similar to a symphony orchestra. The electrical stimulation is like giving the brain regions a more talented conductor so they play in closer synchrony.

“It's like we replaced their normal conductor with Muti,“ Voss said, referring to Riccardo Muti, the music director of the renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “The brain regions played together better after the stimulation.“

The approach also has potential for treating mental disorders such as schizophrenia in which these brain regions and the hippocampus are out of sync with each other, affecting memory and cognition.
BOOSTING MEMORY

The Northwestern study is the first to show TMS improves memory long after treatment. In the past, TMS has been used in a limited way to temporarily change brain function to improve performance during a test, for example, making someone push a button slightly faster while the brain is being stimulated. The study shows that TMS can be used to improve memory for events at least 24 hours after the stimulation is given.

FINDING THE SWEET SPOT

It isn't possible to directly stimulate the hippocampus with TMS because it's too deep in the brain for the magnetic fields to penetrate. So, using an MRI scan, Voss and colleagues identified a superficial brain region a mere centimeter from the surface of the skull with high connectivity to the hippocampus. He wanted to see if directing the stimulation to this spot would in turn stimulate the hippocampus. It did. “I was astonished to see that it worked so specifically,“ Voss said.

When TMS was used to stimulate this spot, regions in the brain involved with the hippocampus became more synchronised with each other, as indicated by data taken while subjects were inside an MRI machine, which records the blood flow in the brain as an indirect measure of neuronal activity.
The more those regions worked together due to the stimulation, the better people were able to learn new information.

THE FUTURE
“This opens up a whole new area for treatment studies where we will try to see if we can improve function in people who really need it,“ Voss said.

His current study was with people who had normal memory, in whom he wouldn't expect to see a big improvement because their brains are already working effectively.

“But for a person with brain damage or a memory disorder, those networks are disrupted so even a small change could translate into gains in their function,“ Voss said.
In an upcoming trial, Voss will study the electrical stimulation's effect on people with early-stage memory loss.

Voss cautioned that years of research are needed to determine whether this approach is safe or effective for patients with Alzheimer's disease or similar disorders of memory.


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