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Davis Awarded $3.6 Million Grant to Boost Memory in Older Adults

The grant from the U.S. National Institute for Aging will enable Davis to study how older adults with memory impairments may benefit from individualized magnetic brain stimulation

Simon Davis, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of neurology at Duke and a member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, was recently awarded a grant from the U.S. National Institute for Aging to study brain activity patterns that support memory function in ageing adults.

Simon Davis
Duke Center for Cognitive Neuroscience member and assistant professor in neurology Simon Davis, Ph.D. 

The $3.6 million grant over the course of five years will allow Davis and his colleagues to test whether a magnetic brain stimulation can improve memory in older adults aging healthy and those with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

“Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, is a noninvasive way to increase brain activity,” Davis said. “We're going to use it to push the brain closer to an optimal state for memory and monitor brain changes in real time.”

In the U.S., 1 in 9 people aged 65 or older is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which leads to a debilitating decline in cognitive functioning, such as problem solving and difficulty remembering new information. Currently, there are a handful of drugs approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration to treat Alzheimer’s disease, but their effectiveness is limited.

Davis’s project will focus on developing an alternative approach to prescription medicine for dementia. Instead of a pill, Davis hopes new TMS interventions can restore healthy brain activity for people with ailing memory.

“It's personalized, not just at the level of the individual, but at the level of moment-to-moment brain activity,” Davis said.

The first part of Davis’ project will focus on figuring out how to dial in the right amount of stimulation to evoke just the right amount activity in a memory-involved brain region called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Next, the research project will evaluate the benefits of dampening a specific pattern of brain activity, or “oscillations”, in the prefrontal cortex. Certain brain oscillations, like alpha waves, are associated with distraction, and even compromised cognition in people with Alzheimer’s disease or related syndromes.

“Alpha oscillations are typically seen as bad for memory,” Davis said. “Our data shows that reducing alpha oscillations can enhance memory and promote a sort of optimal state for encoding strong memories.”

Davis will also explore how magnetic stimulation treatment actually leads to improved memory by tracking blood flow in the brain and whether brain regions involved in memory become better connected.

With the potential to revolutionize care for people with dementia, Davis’s innovative approach to boost brain activity with magnetic stimulation offers hope for those with severe memory loss.