Audrey Herrald 23′
It was a study so promising that the subjects didn’t want it to end.
In mid-September of last year, a team of researchers at the Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute at the University of South Florida completed a two-month, eight-subject study regarding the effectiveness of electromagnetic stimulation in treating Alzheimer’s Disease. The results were striking. After just two months of treatment, seven of the study’s eight participants showed significant improvements in cognitive processing tests and up to a 50% reduction in forgetting during recall tasks. The participants were each provided with an electromagnetic stimulator (an electrode-studded cap) for use during their twice-daily treatment sessions, and not one of the patients wanted to return the cap at the conclusion of the study—all eight kept the cap, and many of them signed on for a 17-month extension of the promising study.
Now, what exactly is this electromagnetic treatment, and why might it help those who suffer with Alzheimer’s Disease?
The specific type of electromagnetic treatment administered in the study is known as transcranial electromagnetic treatment (TEMT). It involves the exposure of brain tissue to high-frequency electromagnetic waves via small rubber electrodes placed on the head. In the Alzheimer’s study, TEMT was pursued with two goals in mind. For one, researchers hoped that the electromagnetic waves would break up the harmful amyloid-beta and tau protein tangles that disrupt neuronal signaling in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s Disease. Researchers also intended to use the channel-altering capability of the electromagnetic waves to increase functional connectivity within the cingulate cortex—a brain region important for attention and cognition.
This electrical stimulation, delivered in the study by a cap-like device dubbed “MemorEMT,” was administered to patients twice a day for one hour. A caretaker (usually a spouse or other family member) simply had to fit the cap atop their loved one’s head and strap a small banded control box to their upper arm. Then, treatment began. Remarkably, the device proved unobtrusive enough to allow for the completion of almost all everyday household tasks. Even better, the treatment appeared to have positive effects on cognitive processing and recall rates.
The effectiveness of the TEMT was gauged in a number of ways. For one, participants took the ADAS-cog test both prior to and after the two months of treatment. This test, the most commonly used cognitive processing assessment among Alzheimer’s Disease patients, ranks subjects on a scale of 1-70 according to their demonstrated cognitive abilities. On average, test-takers who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s exhibit a 4-point decline in their ADAS-cog score each year. In the present study, seven of the eight patients showed at least a 4-point increase in their score after just two months of treatment—effectively restoring their cognitive processing abilities to that which they might have exhibited one full year earlier (as judged by the ADAS-cog metrics.)
It makes sense, then, that participants might not be so keen to return their headgear at the conclusion of the study. However, the MemorEMT investigation did have a few shortcomings. For one, all eight study participants received TEMT treatment; the study included no control group against which to compare positive results. The study was also relatively short in duration, leading some to believe that the increase in ADAS-cog score could have been a test-taking fluke with little significance in terms of the patients’ true levels of cognitive function.
Dr. Robert B. Santulli, an expert on aging and Alzheimer’s as well as a visiting associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth, weighed in on the results of the TEMT study. “It’s something they’re looking at,” he acknowledged. “Just like any of these treatments [pills like Namenda and Aricept], it takes time to see what works.” He explains that it’s been over a decade since any new Alzheimer’s treatments have been developed—an unusually long gap in successful drug development for a disease with such a widespread effect. And, given the slow-moving progression of the disease, any potential treatment will likely take years to test and approve through in vivo studies.
At least for the next few years, a cure for Alzheimer’s still seems distant. However, as technological advances allow for increases in the development of alternative treatments like TEMT, hope of a breakthrough should never be too far away. The 17-month extension of the TEMT study is currently underway, and researchers hope that the results will pave the way for further development of Alzheimer’s care via non-invasive electrical stimulation.