Stimulating a precise location of the brain’s memory center with electromagnetic pulses improves the memory of older adults with age-related memory loss to the level of young adults, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study.
“Older people’s memory got better up to the level that we could no longer tell them apart from younger people,” said lead investigator Joel Voss, associate professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “They got substantially better.”
The study used Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to target the hippocampus – the brain region that atrophies as people grow older, which is responsible for memory decline.
The study was published April 17 in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
“It’s the part of the brain that links two unrelated things together into a memory, like the place you left your keys or your new neighbor’s name,” Voss said. “Older adults often complain about having trouble with this.”
This type of memory worsens as we age. Nearly all people experience a decline in their memory ability as they age.
The new study of 16 people — ages 64 to 80 with normal age-related memory problems – shows it’s possible to alter memory ability in older adults using this type of brain stimulation, Voss said. “There is no previous evidence that the specific memory impairments and brain dysfunction seen in older adults can be rescued using brain stimulation or any other method.”
Voss’s team located the hippocampus – which is smaller in older adults – individually for each participant with an fMRI. An fMRI (functional MRI) measures how active a part of the brain is at a given time.
Then, they located an area of the parietal lobe that communicates with the hippocampus for stimulation delivery. This spot was behind and slightly above a person’s left ear, but everyone had a slightly different spot.