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New 20-minute non-invasive treatment could reverse memory loss, study says

More than 747,000 Canadians currently live with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, but a new study suggests age-related memory loss could be reversed with a 20-minute non-invasive treatment.

Researchers from Boston University outlined their findings in a paper published in Nature Neuroscience last week. Their treatment involves a wearable cap equipped with electrodes that sends electrical signals into the brain, and researchers say this could help improve memory function.

"An increasingly older population leads to additional personal, social, healthcare and economic costs. A factor greatly contributing to these costs is the impairment in basic memory systems essential for activities of everyday life, such as making financial decisions or understanding language," lead researcher Robert Reinhart said in a news release published Monday.

In the study, patients received electrical brain stimulation for 20 minutes for four consecutive days. Each day, the patients were given a list of 20 words and were asked to memorize and immediately recite the words.

Two different treatment methods were tested: one targeting short-term memory with low-frequency stimulation and another for improving long-term memory with high-frequency stimulation in the brain's prefrontal cortex. Both methods were tested against a placebo in a randomized double-blind trial.

The researchers found that after three or four days of applying low-frequency electrical signals to the brain, patients exhibited better short-term memory, and the improvements remained a month later.

Sending high-frequency signals into the brain improved long-term memory after Day 2, as well as after a month. The researchers also found that individuals that had lower cognitive function had larger and longer-lasting memory improvement as a result of the treatment.

"Clinically, this is important because there are people with only short-term memory problems and others with only long-term memory problems. So, having tools in hand that can address each of these memory systems is of great value," Reinhart said.

In a 2019 study led by Reinhart's team, the researchers had applied the electrode treatment for one 25-minute session, but patients only exhibited memory benefits for less than an hour before the improvements vanished. However, Reinhart's treatment now applies electrical stimulation for multiple days.

"In this new study, we used multiple, consecutive days of stimulation for 20 minutes to cause long-lasting memory improvements that lasted one month. Previously, the effects lasted only 50 minutes," Reinhart said.

Currently, Reinhart notes that the existing treatment options for age-related impaired cognition produce mixed results and come with several risks and side effects.

"For those reasons, there’s an urgent need to develop innovative therapeutic interventions that can provide rapid and sustainable improvements with minimal side effects," he said.

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