Brain stimulation may sound futuristic, but the effects of this technique on the human brain have been investigated since the early 1980’s.
Brain stimulation is currently used to treat psychiatric conditions such as depression, but more research is needed to determine whether brain stimulation could improve memory difficulties experienced by older adults.
This is exactly what Kate Hoy, Professor at Monash University and Clinical Neuropsychologist, has set out to determine. Past research by Professor Hoy found people treated for depression with brain stimulation sometimes also experienced improved thinking, concentration and attention.
“After this finding we began investigating if brain stimulation could be used to improve cognition more broadly, including in people with Mild Cognitive Impairment and dementia.”
While some changes in memory and thinking skills are normal as we age, what level of forgetfulness might be considered outside of normal ageing?
Mild Cognitive Impairment, or MCI, refers to a decline in memory or thinking abilities that are greater than what would be expected in someone of a similar age. These changes do not greatly impact upon day-to-day and people with MCI are able to function independently. Changes in memory may include:
- Frequently forgetting names of friends, family or places
- Difficulty holding multiple types of information in your mind
- Difficulty recalling parts of or entire conversations or events
- A noticeable change in your ability to complete well-practiced tasks (e.g. you used to be very good at crosswords, multi-tasking, but now have difficulty)
It is currently estimated that people with MCI have a 3-5 times greater risk of developing dementia compared to others of their age. There are no currently approved treatments for MCI, however, there are a number of research projects underway investigating potential therapies – one of which is non-invasive brain stimulation. Specifically, a technique called transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (tACS).
Could brain stimulation improve memory in your own home?
Researchers at the Epworth Centre for Innovation in Mental Health (ECIMH) have developed a portable device that enables people to apply brain stimulation treatments safely and easily within their own home. Researchers are currently examining whether transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (tACS) applied using this device can improve memory difficulties associated with MCI over the course of 3-years.
The 20-minute treatment involves wearing a headset while gentle electrical currents increase activity in the brain cells underneath the scalp. Patients are remotely supervised by researchers either by phone or video conference calls to ensure the trial participant feels comfortable and confident.
“One of the advantages of using a portable device to apply tACS to treat memory difficulties, if it were found to be effective, is the high degree of accessibility of a treatment that can be provided remotely”
Professor Kate Hoy, who is heading up research into treatments for cognitive disorders at the Epworth Centre for Innovation in Mental Health (ECIMH) said "tACS uses an electrical current which passes freely into the brain and enhances the brain’s own natural activity. This, in turn, strengthens the connections between brain regions meaning that communication throughout the brain is improved. It is hoped that this will lead to improved memory and thinking skills.”
To be eligible to take part in this trial, participants need to be aged 50 to 80 and meet criteria for MCI. Professor Hoy is also investigating other forms of brain stimulation for treating mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease, including in-clinic and home-based treatments.
More information on Mild Cognitive Impairment and Dementia can be found here.