Unlocking the brain’s full potential
Eva Vico Varela, neuroscience doctoral student at McGill University
For more than two decades, deep brain electrical pulses have been helping people with Parkinson's disease control tremors. Researchers now suspect that such pulses could also improve memory circuits in those with Alzheimer's.
However, there is a hitch: doctors know the frequency, interval period and duration of electrical pulses that most effectively control tremors, but not those that might affect memory.
Eva Vico Varela, a neuroscience doctoral student at McGill University, means to find out.
Funded in part by the Alzheimer Society Research Program, Vico Varela will spend the next year studying deep brain stimulation in mice genetically engineered to have Alzheimer's disease. She will scan their brains as she experiments with electrical pulses of different frequencies, intervals and duration.
"I want to see if changes in brain wave frequencies and strength associated with memory retrieval or consolidation are happening in the mice," she says.
Vico Varela will also put the mice through a series of memory tests before and after the deep brain stimulation.
She will apply pulses to the fornix, a C-shaped structure buried deep in the brain. The fornix is made of axons, which are long fibres that extend from brain cells and carry outgoing messages.
The fornix acts as the main link out of the hippocampus to the rest of the brain. This is a crucial link since the hippocampus plays an important role in helping us consolidate short and long term memory and in spatial memory.
A previous study of healthy rats treated with electrical pulses to the fornix showed that it improved their memories. Vico Varela's work will show whether the same might be said of mice with Alzheimer's disease and, if so, exactly how the pulses should be applied.
Deep brain stimulation in people with Alzheimer's is still in clinical trials, but Vico Varela's results could help fine tune the way researchers apply the pulses.
"This treatment wouldn't be a cure. It may not make your memory better," she says. "But it may slow the decline, which would make a person's quality of life better."