Alzheimer’s Battle Hope: Landmark Trial Reveals Electrically Stimulating Brain Can Boost Memory

A landmark trial has confirmed sending electric currents deep into the brain can improve memory. The results pave the way for future studies in Alzheimer’s patients. Neurologists have developed temporal interference brain stimulation technology that involves electrode application to the scalp to send high-frequency beams into the brain.

Beams are of slightly different frequencies, and when they cross, they create a low-frequency wave of 5 Hz.

This low-frequency wave is triggered in an area deep in the brain — the hippocampus — responsible for forming new memories. It boosts the coordination of activity involved in forming cell memory in this part of the brain.

The team tested their technology on 20 healthy volunteers wearing electrodes for 30 minutes each time while memorizing pairs of names and faces. Analysis revealed it boosted memory accuracy by as much as 20 percent without interfering with healthy brain tissue.

Experts describe the technology as “incredible,” as it opens a new avenue of treatment for brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

Up until recently, electrically stimulating deep brain structures required surgery.

The team from Imperial College London’s UK Dementia Research Institute and the University of Surrey have started trialing the technique in individuals with early Alzheimer’s.

“With our new technique, we have shown for the first time that it is possible to remotely stimulate specific regions deep within the human brain without the need for surgery. This opens up a new avenue of treatment for brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, which affect deep brain structures. We hope it will help to scale up the availability of deep brain stimulation therapies by drastically reducing cost and risk,” said the team. 

“We are now testing whether repeated treatment with the stimulation over the course of a number of days could benefit people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. We hope that this will restore normal brain activity in the affected areas, which could improve symptoms of memory impairment,” they continued.

When commenting on the results, Associate Director of Research and Innovation at Alzheimer’s Society, Dr. Richard Oakley, said, “This is incredible technology.”

“Currently, the treatments that stimulate areas deep in the brain are used in Parkinson’s Disease, but this involves invasive surgery, which can take months to recover from. This study shows that it is possible to do deep brain stimulation simply by wearing a headset. What’s more, this stimulation can improve performance in memory tasks in healthy people,” said Oakley.

“Dementia is a devastating terminal illness and the UK’s biggest killer, so it really is exciting to see research opening up whole new areas for future treatment, but it’s still very early days. We’re looking forward to seeing how the study develops, particularly how long-lasting the changes could be for people living with Alzheimer’s Disease,” Oakley continued.

According to Richard Morris, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, “This work is potentially an astonishing step forward, and I congratulate the authors in developing their non-invasive targeting of focal stimulation in deep brain structures such as the hippocampus.”

Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, Dr. Leah Mursaleen, said, “Although there are some promising new drugs in the pipeline for people with early Alzheimer’s disease, they have not yet been approved by regulators and, even if they are, they may not be suitable for everyone.”

“With nearly one million people living with dementia in the UK today, it’s crucial that we also look at in other ways that can help people manage their symptoms. Although deep brain stimulation is available as a treatment option for some brain conditions, such as Parkinson’s Disease, current techniques require complicated brain surgery,” said Mursaleen.

“So, it’s fantastic to see UK-based researchers exploring promising new ways to reach the brain that don’t require invasive procedures. It is important to note that this study was done in a small group of healthy volunteers. Therefore, the results of the next clinical trial, which will assess this exciting technique in people with early Alzheimer’s Disease, will give us more insight to see if this technique can help improve their memory,” she said.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s Disease is a degenerative, progressive disease of the brain in which the build-up of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die. 

The death of the nerve cells disrupts the transmitters that carry messages and causes the brain to shrink.

Over five million people have Alzheimer’s Disease in the United States, the sixth leading cause of death; over one million in Great Britain have it.

What happens with Alzheimer’s?

As brain cells die, the functions they provide are lost. These functions include orientation, memory, and the ability to reason and think.

The progress of the Disease is gradual and slow.

On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some can live for ten to 15 years.

Early symptoms: 

• Disorientation

• Mood swings

• Loss of short-term memory

• Behavioral changes

• Difficulties making a phone call or dealing with money

More advanced symptoms: 

• Eventually losing the ability to walk

• Severe memory loss — forgetting familiar objects, places, or close family members

• Becoming frustrated or anxious over inability to make sense of the world and leading to aggressive behavior

• May have problems eating

• Majority will eventually need 24-hour care