Alzheimer’s disease could be treated with electric shocks to the brain that rescue memory in the early stages of the disease, according to new research.
A study using electric shocks in epilepsy patients found that stimulating the area of the brain that processes language ‘reliably and significantly’ boosted patients’ ability to remember words.
This method of treatment has been successfully used for epilepsy sufferers in the past to quell seizures but now researchers have found that patients’ memory improved by 15 percent when fitted with a skull cap that sent electromagnetic pulses to that specific part of the brain.
The findings offer hope of a therapy to stop symptoms of the crippling brain disorder at its earliest stages for the 5.5 million Americans suffering from incurable Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania sent electric shocks to the area of the brain that processes language and found that patient’s memory improved by 15 percent
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study with 25 epilepsy patients who wore a skull cap fitted with electrodes that sent electromagnetic pulses to the lateral temporal cortex.
This is an area near the surface of the brain that carries nerve impulses between neurons.
The technique has been effective at reducing seizures in patients with epilepsy and has also shown promise for controlling Parkinson’s disease.
Psychology professor and study author Michael Kahana said the findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, show that sending shocks to this area can benefit parts of the brain deeper within, such as the hippocampus, especially in the early stages of conditions such as dementia.
The hippocampus is thought to be the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system.
Professor Kahana said: ‘Our system provides a framework for developing therapies to treat memory dysfunction.
ALZHEIMER’S: FAST FACTS
WHAT IS IT?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain.
A build-up of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die.
This disrupts the transmitters that carry messages, and causes the brain to shrink.
As brain cells die, the functions they provide are lost.
That includes memory, orientation and the ability to think and reason.
The progress of the disease is slow and gradual.
On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some may live for ten to 15 years.
- Loss of short-term memory
- Behavioral changes
- Mood swings
- Difficulties dealing with money or making a phone call
- Severe memory loss, forgetting close family members, familiar objects or places
- Becoming anxious and frustrated over inability to make sense of the world, leading to aggressive behavior
- Eventually lose ability to walk
- May have problems eating
- The majority will eventually need 24-hour care
HOW ALZHEIMER’S DIFFERS FROM NORMAL MEMORY LOSS:
With ordinary age-related forgetfulness, you will still remember details associated with the thing they’ve forgotten.
For example, you may forget your neighbor’s name in conversation, but you still know that person is your neighbor.
Alzheimer’s sufferers forget the entire context.
‘There is evidence that disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease demonstrate network abnormalities resulting from inhibitory dysfunction that can manifest early in disease progression.’
The 25 participants were undergoing monitoring for drug resistant epilepsy.
Researchers read lists of 12 words to the participants who were asked to remember them as their neural activity was recorded by an EEG (electroencephalogram).
The scientists then fed the data to a computer program which was able to learn exactly how the brain of each individual responded to the words.
As the patients attempted to absorb the list of words, the computer tracked and recorded brain signals, determining if the patients were likely to forget the words.
This prompted an electrical pulse, unknown to participants, when they were less likely to remember the new information.
‘During each new word the patient viewed, the system would record and analyze brain activity to predict whether the patient had learned it effectively. When the system detected ineffective learning, that triggered stimulation, closing the loop,’ said Youssef Ezzyat, a senior data scientist involved in the study.
They found that this process improved patients’ ability to recall the words by 15 percent.
Brainwaves were monitored using an EEG, which involved placing electrodes on the brain surface, with wires exiting out through the skull and scalp.
It is known as closed-loop stimulation, with the first half of the ‘loop’ detecting an abnormality and the second the resulting stimulation.
The process differs from a similar ‘open-loop’ method where an electrode is implanted in the patient’s brain to provide a continuous train of stimulation pulses.
This often targets the hippocampus and media temporal lobes, which controls long term memory.
However, Professor Kahana is among scientists who believe constantly stimulating the brain with the same signal is not always the most efficient treatment.
He said previous efforts at combating memory loss by using open-loop stimulated reported inconsistent effects.
Professor Kahana added: ‘Using this closed-loop stimulation approach in patients with epilepsy, we provide proof of concept for the therapeutic treatment of memory dysfunction.’