Electrical Pulses to Scalp May Boost Memory: Study
But years of research remain before this therapy could treat brain disorders, experts say
"This is a really interesting study," said Mary Sano, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine in New York City.
According to Sano, the results help identify the "pathways of memory consolidation" in the healthy brain. "That kind of basic knowledge is very important to understanding what goes wrong in disease," she said.
But she agreed that years of research remain before TMS could potentially be used to either treat memory problems -- from Alzheimer's disease, stroke or other brain disorders -- or to give healthy people a memory boost.
"Everybody probably has a desire to gain more control over their memory," Sano noted. But she said researchers have much to learn about whether there are safe, feasible ways to do that.
As for TMS, specifically, Voss said it's "remarkable" that a few sessions were able to improve memory performance -- even in people with no impairments. "It's amazing that the brain is so plastic," he said, referring to the brain's capacity to change.
"But," Voss stressed, "we have a lot to learn, in terms of safety and effectiveness. We don't even know if (in someone with a brain disorder) this would have benefits, or possibly make things worse."
Based on what's known from depression treatment, TMS is relatively safe. The main side effects are a short-lived headache and scalp discomfort. There also appears to be a small risk of seizure.
Right now, TMS is pricey. When it's used for depression, one session typically costs around $300. And there is no MRI involved, whereas, if TMS were used for memory problems, an MRI would be needed to zero in on the brain networks connected to the hippocampus.
The precise location of those networks varies from person to person, Voss explained.
His team is planning a study of TMS in older adults in the early stages of memory loss. "Within about five years, we should have an idea of whether it's potentially useful," Voss said.