We aren’t getting any younger. And our brains aren’t getting any more supple.
In fact — and this is hardly news — as you creep closer to that golden age of 120, your memory grows slower and your thought processes get fuzzier.
But the question that everyone of a certain age keeps asking: Is this just the beginning of a gradual decline? Or the start of something quicker, and more horrifying? A dementia that will rob me of memory and thoughts altogether? And if it turns out to be the latter, can the devastating process at least be slowed, if not halted?
These questions are at the center of Dr. Oded Meiron’s research agenda.
Dr. Meiron heads the electrophysiology and neurocognition lab and directs the noninvasive brain stimulation clinic at Herzog Medical Center’s Clinical Research Center for Brain Sciences in Jerusalem. He is also on the faculty at Bar Ilan University.
Last week, Dr. Meiron spoke at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on “Fine Tuning the Aging Brain and Early Detection and Prevention of Alzheimer’s.” The talk was arranged by the JCC’s senior services department.
In his talk, Dr. Meiron described his research into detecting brain dysfunction and ameliorating it. The goal: To find “objective characteristics that can predict the onset of dementia,” he said. Catching Alzheimer’s disease early is important, because once it has begun, “it’s very difficult to delay or to suppress its progression, a progression that continues until a person is almost totally disabled and dysfunctional.”
One tack Dr. Meiron takes in his research is to measure memory behavior while also measuring the electrical signals within the brain, looking for correlations. In an experiment, he measured the electrical changes detected from the auditory cortex section of the brain when subjects heard a new sound. Older people have only half the response of young people, “which is saying that the automatic change detection mechanisms in the brain seem to be compromised in older people,” he said.
Similarly, the signal is lower in patients with schizophrenia.
This decrease in response to a sound correlates with a decline in working memory — which is “one of the major symptoms in mild cognitive impairment.”
His hope is that by measuring the brain’s electrical response to sounds, “We might be able to validate a significant predictor to allow us to intervene early and try to suppress dementia symptoms non-invasively.”
Dr. Meiron also has explored another approach to detecting dementia before it is readily observable. Working with Efraim Jaul, director of Herzog’s department of geriatric skilled nursing, he published a paper in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease that reported finding “a common biological mechanism that occurs both in skin tissue and in brain tissue. And this biological mechanism begins to deteriorate even before the onset of dementia. The cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s disease patients was recently found to correlate with changes in peripheral inflammatory signals in the skin. So we can look at the inflammatory signals in the skin and hypothetically — this needs to be validated — we can hypothetically predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in a specific individual.”
Dr. Meiron also is researching how to make brains work better by sending electricity back into the brain to modify its activity. His work is non-invasive — that is, he doesn’t need to cut a hole in a skull and insert electrodes within the brain. “I just place electrodes on the scalp,” he said. “The participant can sit there, read a book, listen to music, have a conversation with me while he’s getting the stimulation.”
The electricity involved is “a very weak current, between 0.5 to 2 milliamps.” That’s a fraction of the current of a household AA battery. But it’s enough to “modify the excitability of frontal areas of the brain. We see that we enhance the ability of people to recall words accurately,” a standard neurological test.
And while such procedures haven’t been able to fully reverse dementia, they have succeeded in stopping the decline, and even allowed for some improvement. “There was an accountant who stopped doing specific things” because of his mental decline. “After we treated him, his wife came to us and said he’s suddenly gone back to the office and started doing all the spreadsheets.”
The stimulation is not a one-time thing; “we need a maintenance phase, additional stimulation sessions, to sustain these behaviors,” he said.
The good news is that “this device has already been tested at home settings. Patients will be able to take the device and just place it on their head following a prescription from the doctor. One of the main goals is to develop personalized electrical stimulation protocols to combat early, mild cognitive impairments or even to combat accelerated decline.”
More evidence for the viability of this approach came in a paper published this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience, in which a team of Boston University researchers found memory benefits a month after such non-invasive cranial stimulation.
(Readers with a tolerance for risk who enjoy tinkering should note that there is a small but real online subculture of enthusiasts experimenting with improving their thinking with non-invasive brain stimulation.)
Dr. Meiron has used the same tools to help an infant suffering from constant seizures. “We’ve managed to monitor his electrical brain activity and use non-invasive brain stimulation to suppress the seizures,” he said.
But what about preventing dementia altogether? That came up in the question and answer session after Dr. Meiron’s presentation. His recommendation: “Healthy lifestyles, which has to do with diet and physical activity, walking, swimming, not necessarily a large physical effort. It needs to be a calm, routine, physical activity, not something that exerts too much stress or too much effort, something that you can do half an hour or an hour every day. And also be active in socializing with others.”