Sensory therapy for dementia is but one of many therapy techniques used to help those suffering from the disease, but a recent study has found that sensory therapy involving magnets may help stimulate the brain and boost brain function, which in turn could help patients.

The study

Research for the study was conducted at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre (MAPrc) in Melbourne. In one part of the study, 17 participants undertook transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which involved participants wearing a portable skull cap that administered short magnetic pulses through the scalp towards the brain.

TMS is commonly used to treat conditions such as migraines, schizophrenia and depression, but scientists believe it may also help those with Alzheimer's.

The magnetic pulses are aimed at the part of the brains requiring stimulation, so are often aimed at the parts of the brain involving sensory skills in order to reinvigorate it.

Early results found that TMS can have a positive effect on dementia patient’s memory and concentration.

The key: theta waves

However, scientists have struggled to find a definitive answer as to why TMS can improve brain function. But in a later study, scientists from MAPrc discovered that TMS’s positive effects are likely the result of its ability to work with the brain's theta waves.

In this study, participants were asked to undertake TMS again, however half of the participants undertook the procedure where the pulses were specifically targeted at the brain's theta waves, while the other half were targeted in only the general sensory area of the brain.

The participants were then asked to memorise a sequence of tones which were then played backwards. Participants then had to match the backwards tones to the ones they had heard previously before.

As this was being tested, participant’s brains were scanned to look at the magnetic and electric activity in the brain.

The scientists discovered that TMS did improve brain performance, but only for those participants who undertook TMS that specifically targeted their brain's theta waves. Those whose TMS treatment that only targeted the general sensory area of the brain showed no change in performance.

Implications

These results suggest that it is not TMS on its own that improves brain performance, but its combination of working with manipulated theta waves.

The author of the study, Dr Philippe Albouy, said: “Now we know human behaviour can be specifically boosted using stimulation that matched ongoing, self-generated brain oscillations.”

“Even more exciting is while this study investigated auditory memory, the same approach can be used for multiple cognitive processes such as vision, perception, and learning.”

Co-author Dr Robert Zatorre was also pleased with the results, and now wishes to attempt to enhance the boost in brain performance given:

“The results are very promising, and offer a pathway for future treatments,” he said.

“We plan to do more research to see if we can make the performance boost last longer, and if it works for other kinds of stimuli and tasks.”

The study was published in Neuron, a scientific journal with a focus on neuroscience.