A new treatment for Alzheimer's disease that beams magnetic pulses into patients' brains is undergoing trials in Britain.
Researchers have found that focusing a magnetic field on to patients' heads while they answer questions or solve puzzles can reduce the symptoms of dementia and improve their memories. The treatment stimulates regions of the brain involved in memory and learning, enhancing patients' ability to make new memories.
The scientists behind the technique say it can allow Alzheimer's patients to live far more independently than they otherwise would and extends the time they can spend with their families before suffering the devastating mental decline associated with the disease.
They are still conducting tests to see exactly how long the treatment can hold back the symptoms of the disease, which include loss of memory, confusion, and changes in personality, but early trials suggest it can be effective for up to a year.
A trial of the technology is now being conducted with patients in Manchester. Professor Karl Herholz, a clinical neuroscientist at the University of Manchester who is leading the study, said they would examine the effect of the technology on six patients with the early signs of Alzheimer's disease.
"We have just finished treating the first patient," he said. "It is a promising approach. Medical interventions using drugs tend to have side effects, which are a problem in the early stages when people still function relatively well.
"Even something that can be effective for three months or half a year would make a substantial difference."
Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia that affects almost 500,000 people in Britain. It is thought to be caused by a build-up of tangles inside the cells of the brain, which prevent them from working effectively. Early symptoms include confusion and memory loss leading to a gradual decline in cognitive ability.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease. Existing drug treatments attempt to slow down the progress of its symptoms for a limited period, but can have side effects, including headaches, fatigue, nausea and confusion.
The magnetic pulse treatment, known as NeuroAD and developed by Neuronix Medical, an Israeli company, uses a technique known as transcranial electromagnetic stimulation (TMS) to increase the activity of specific areas of the brain. Patients are exposed to a magnetic pulse while performing specially designed brain training, where they answer questions, identify shapes and solve simple puzzles, in daily hour-long sessions over a six-week period.
Prof Herholz is using brain scanning techniques to examine whether the treatment produces physical changes in the brain, but tests in animals have shown that TMS increases communication between brain cells.
Clinical trials in Israel and at Harvard Medical School in the US have shown that in patients with mild Alzheimer's, the Neuronix treatment improved their symptoms for up to five months.
The NeuroAD treatment, however, is still expensive — costing around £120 for a session and up to £3,600 for a full course — and it will be several years before it is widely available.
Eyal Baror, chief executive of Neuronix Medical, said: "We are not offering a cure, but a way to help patients stay independent and have a better quality of life for longer."
Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, which has contributed £11,830 towards the trial in Manchester, said: "This small preliminary study has shown some promising early-stage results for this treatment."