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Magnetic Stimulation Improves Memory in Schizophrenia Patients

Noninvasive procedure uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells (Mar. 12)

No satisfactory treatments currently exist for the cognitive impairments that often accompany schizophrenia. These impairments can affect a patient’s memory, attention, and verbal and motor skills, as well as his or her IQ.

Scientists are now exploring a variety of strategies to reduce schizophrenia-related cognitive impairments, including “exercising the brain” with specially designed computer games and medications that may improve the function of brain circuits.

In the current issue of Biological Psychiatry, researchers at the University of Toronto show that stimulating the brain using repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) may be an effective strategy to improve cognitive function.

rTMS is a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells. It does not require sedation or anesthesia, allowing patients to remain awake, reclined in a chair, while treatment is administered through coils placed near the forehead.

“TMS can have lasting effects on brain-circuit function because this approach not only changes the activity of the circuit that is being stimulated, but it also may change the plasticity of that circuit, i.e., the capacity of the circuit to remodel itself functionally and structurally to support cognitive functions,” explained Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

For their double-blind study, the researchers recruited medicated schizophrenia patients, who completed a working memory task before and after 4 weeks of treatment.

rTMS not only improved working memory in these patients, but the improvement was to a level that was comparable with that of healthy subjects, suggesting that rTMS may be a viable treatment for working-memory deficits in schizophrenia patients, the authors reported.

rTMS was approved by the FDA in 2008 to treat depression in patients who do not respond to pharmacotherapy.

The authors concluded: “Working memory is an important predictor of functional outcome. Developing novel treatments aimed at improving these deficits may ultimately translate into meaningful changes in the lives of patients suffering from this debilitating disorder.”

Source: Elsevier; March 12, 2013.

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