Can Magnetic Stimulation Help Alzheimer's Patients Think Clearly?

Transcranial magnetic stimulation has become faster and more effective. It also looks much cooler than all those messy wires. Monash University

A trial of the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) for people with Alzheimer's disease has started well, and the researchers are seeking more participants.

TMS involves the use of powerful magnets outside the skull to produce electric currents within the brain. It has been used successfully for conditions such as depression, Parkinson's disease, and even memory loss. Response rates vary, but the side-effects of TMS are very small compared to most alternatives, which makes trying it attractive.

Monash University's Dr Kate Hoy told IFLScience: “There have been about half a dozen small clinical trials of TMS for Alzheimer’s... These have generally shown some small improvements.” However, the studies have had limitations that prevented widespread adoption of TMS for Alzheimer's.

Hoy is attempting to rectify that. So far, her trial has only had 12 participants, half of whom received a placebo. Yet trial participant Jo Duff is a fan, describing to Fairfax a reduction in the “fogginess” that caused her to struggle to think clearly or remember details, while most people diagnosed at the same time are finding these things harder.

It is unusual for researchers to go public before their trial has finished, let alone completed peer review, but Hoy is seeking more participants, with funding to treat 100 over the next three years. Although she has promoted the trial through Alzheimer's Australia and by sending letters to doctors, Hoy told IFLScience: “You get more diversity if you have many avenues for recruitment,” including raising awareness through the media.

Anyone wishing to take part needs to have been diagnosed with mild to moderate Alzheimer's and not be at risk of seizures or have an unstable medical condition. Treatment takes six weeks and must be conducted in Melbourne, Australia.

In addition to a higher quality trial, Hoy told IFLScience her work differs from previous TMS studies in using theta burst stimulation. Although it sounds like something Scientologists might promote, theta burst stimulation is what Hoy calls “a patterned form of TMS, much more consistent with the way the brain fires.” It has been in experimental use for a decade.

Where traditional TMS takes around 45 minutes, theta burst stimulation can achieve something similar in three minutes. According to Hoy, this allows the team to target four brain regions effectively without having the process take uncomfortably long. The stimulation is repeated daily for the first three weeks, and more infrequently for another three.

Early research into TMS was largely a shot in the dark, with neuroscientists having little idea how or why it worked, and therefore few ways to refine it. However, Hoy told IFLScience this is changing: “We have a theoretical framework now, and understand how [TMS] can increase functional brain connectivity."

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