With a few shocks to the brain, scientists have made it possible to never forget a friend’s birthday, lose track of keys or have to deal with uncomfortable encounter of forgetting an acquaintance’s name. A research team at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine has used this knowledge for more than just key tracking but for enhancing the retention network of memory-impaired individuals.
The Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is a noninvasive method to depolarize or hyperpolarize neurons in the brain through electromagnetic induction. Essentially, the treatment will control neurons to be stronger or weaker in an individual. This recent study covers the therapeutic uses of TMS. Joel Voss, assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University, and his team worked on this project.
“I am most interested in my research because it has at least some promise for helping individuals with memory impairments,” Voss said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with people after their lives have been essentially destroyed by severe memory impairment, and the desire to figure out some way to improve their lot is what gets me going in the morning.”
They tested TMS’s impact on memory by understanding the memory-related regions of the brain. Voss and his team tested 16 healthy individuals without memory impairment with an MRI and looked at the treatment’s influence on the regions. This established a standard for proper cognitive function. Afterwards, the same test subjects were brought in for memory tasks over a span of five days with 20 minutes of TMS each time, while an MRI mapped their brain functions. The final analysis of the study revealed that the five days of TMS treatment resulted in the different regions working better together than how they worked at the standard level.
Further analysis sets hopes for this treatment to be able to be used on stroke victims and Alzheimer’s patients.
“I imagine — or rather hope — that in the near future, we devise a superior method for controlling brain function noninvasively,” Voss said. “When I imagine the effects of TMS on neurons, what comes to mind is trying to thread a needle with a shotgun. We will need better if we are to achieve a sophisticated understanding of brain function.”
Chirag Mehra, a neurodevelopment research fellow at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, gave his input on the present and the future of TMS.
“TMS, while stimulating brain regions in this study, is often used to suppress brain regions for research purposes. So far, no long term consequences have been found secondary to this suppression — the suppression ends when the TMS probe is removed,” Mehra said.
He further discussed the prospects of this treatment.
“Perhaps in the future we could apply TMS to treating psychiatric and neurological disorders. For this, we might need to create a much smaller TMS device that remains in our bodies, providing stimulation — intermittently or continuously — on a long term basis, analogous to a pacemaker used to treat cardiac arrhythmias.”
With the speed at which current neuroscience advancements are occurring, the next 50 years are unpredictable.
“Honestly, advancement is such a moving target that it is impossible to predict very far into the future, much like the weather,” Voss said.