Magnets that boost the brain could be used to ease the pain of Alzheimer’s, researchers believe.
Small-scale studies have shown that using a magnetic coil to stimulate the parts of the brain involved in memory and learning can improve symptoms.
It is hoped that used early in the course of the disease, it would give patients precious extra months of independent living, as well as time with their loved ones before their physical and mental health deteriorates.
The technology had already been tried on Alzheimer’s patients, with promising results, and is now being tested in Manchester.
Six patients in the early stages of the disease will be have a magnetic coil held over their scalp while they answer questions, identify shapes and solve puzzles.
It is hoped that as the magnetic field passes into key brain areas it will strengthen vital connections between cells.
In tests on mice, the technique, known as trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, also boosted the growth of cells in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory hub and one of the first areas to be destroyed by Alzheimer’s.
Brain scans at Manchester University will aim to find out more about how it works.
In a small-scale trial in Israel, it proved to be both safe and effective, with significant improvements in some, but not all, tests of memory.
Israeli firm Neuronix Medical, which is developing the treatment, said: ‘The results showed marked reversal of disease progression with patients improving to a state comparable to two years before treatment initiation.
‘Trials also indicated that improvement is maintained for at least six months post-treatment.’
Professor Karl Herholz, who is testing the device in Manchester, said: ‘We have just finished treating the first patient. It’s 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 and other forms of dementia affect more than 800,000 Britons, with the number expected to double in a generation as the population ages.
Current drugs can halt the progression of the disease but do not work for everyone and their effects wear off over time, leaving the disease free to take its cruel course.
Neuronix Medical’s chief executive, Eyal Baror, told the Sunday Telegraph: ‘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, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, which is helping fund the Manchester trial, described the technique as promising and said that any treatment that could improve thinking skills for people with Alzheimer’s would be ‘a step forward’.
He added: ‘With half a million people affected by Alzheimer’s in the UK, better treatments to help people cope with their symptoms could make a real difference to people’s lives.
‘If we are to find new treatments for Alzheimer’s and other causes of dementia, we must invest in research.’
Trans-cranial magnetic stimulation has also shown promise in treating depression and schizophrenia and in rehabilitating stroke patients.