Brain stimulation promising for improving memory

Canadian researchers have stumbled upon a potentially promising treatment to improve memory.

While researching brain stimulation as a possible treatment for obesity, scientists at Toronto Western Hospital discovered it had amazing effects on the memory of one study subject, sparking interest in further research about a way to boost degenerating memory in the brains of those with Alzheimerès disease.

In the process of stimulating the hypothalamus of a study volunteer, the 50-year-old man suddenly reported feeling a sense of deja  vu. Right in the middle of his procedure, he vividly recalled a scene from 30 years earlier. When the electrical stimulation was removed, the intense memory stopped and it returned again when the stimulation was restarted. Further, the more intense the electrical stimulation, the more vivid his memory became.

A device similar to a pacemaker was implanted in the mans chest. Two months later, researchers turned on the stimulating current and it provoked the same kind of memories again. Although the brain stimulation did nothing for his weight, the effects on his memory circuits appear to have been significant and lasting.

Following his first two treatments, this volunteer received continuous brain stimulation over a three week period and showed significant improvement in spatial and verbal learning tests.

Following their accidental discovery of a way to boost memory, these scientists are now performing deep brain stimulation in patients with early Alzheimer's disease. Similar devices have been implanted in a few volunteers with early Alzheimer's and so far the results are promising.

In these studies, the part of the brain being targeted is the mesial temporal lobe, which is known to be part of the brain that is affected very early in the Alzheimer's disease process.

To date, we still know very little about how memory works in the human brain and this discovery has a lot of potential to teach us what areas of the brain are involved in making and retrieving memories. As we learn this valuable information, we can figure out how to influence these circuits through stimulation and hopefully improve their function.

Although much more research is needed before brain stimulation becomes a standard treatment in Alzheimer's disease, researchers involved in these studies are hopeful stimulation might at least slow progression of the disease allowing people to function longer.

As I have discussed in a different column, deep brain stimulation is being studied for a variety of medical conditions including depression, Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders, headaches, Tourette's syndrome and others.

I believe it will continue to yield interesting results as we learn more about the specific functions of different areas of the human brain. When we can direct electrical stimulation to the exact location responsible for certain disordered activity in the brain, it could be therapeutic in many health problems.

Results of the Toronto study were published in January in the Annals of Neurology.


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