Studying Magnets to Aid the Brain

February 17, 2011

Can magnets help the brain work better in those with Alzheimer’s disease? Preliminary studies suggest they may.

A technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or T.M.S., is under investigation as a possible tool for slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. In an early study recently completed in Israel, researchers used the T.M.S. method, a noninvasive technique that involves applying pulses of magnetic stimulation to the head and brain, daily for six weeks. The therapy was followed by three months of maintenance therapy and six months of follow-up.

The researchers reported that the magnetic therapy enhanced the effects of cognitive training designed to boost memory and thinking in 20 people in the early or moderate stages of Alzheimer’s disease. “In addition to the significant efficacy we found, this treatment is entirely safe and painless,” said study author Dr. Martin Rabey, chairman of the neurology department at Assaf Harofe Medical Center in Israel.

The researchers found that those who got the treatment saw improvements in a common test used to assess the severity of Alzheimer’s. The effects were “at least as good as the average improvement from current F.D.A.-approved medications,” Dr. Rabey said.

Furthermore, the benefits seemed to be lasting, at least for a time. “The natural decline of these patients was limited for nine months following the initiation of treatment,” Dr. Rabey said. “We are encouraged by these early findings, which show that patients regained a significant part of their lost mental abilities, and we are now moving ahead with an ongoing, larger controlled study.”

Other, larger studies of transcranial magnetic stimulation in Alzheimer’s disease are under way in the United States, Europe and Israel. More data is needed to confirm the potential benefits. Many experimental therapies and drugs for Alzheimer’s show promise in early studies, only to be found ineffective in larger follow-up trials.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation is also under investigation for a variety of other neurologic ailments, including depression, Parkinson’s disease, ringing in the ears and mood disorders. One small study conducted in 10 people in Italy earlier this year found that applying magnets to the brain helped Alzheimer’s patients comprehend what was said to them.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation requires a special tool that delivers pulses of magnetic stimulation, and application by an experienced professional is required. Ordinary home magnets, like the kind sold as remedies for arthritis and other ills, would not be effective.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Neuronix corporation. ClinicalTrials.gov. Presented at the annual Congress of the European Federation of Neurological Societies in Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 28, 2010.


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