It looks like a futuristic salon hair dryer.
Connected to a computer by a bright orange strip, the half-cube with rounded corners sits comfortably atop the head, a coil of wires resting on the skull.
As a doctor stands at the computer, the patient gets comfortable. A few seconds later, a brief electromagnetic pulse hits the head.
Do this every weekday for six weeks, doctors tell Alzheimer’s patients, and you’ll feel your brain come back to life.
The technique, known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, uses electromagnetic waves to penetrate the brain and activate underused neural connections.
Two Israeli companies are hoping it will change the way brain diseases are treated.
“This is the first time in neuroscience that we have a noninvasive tool to directly penetrate and influence deep structures of the brain in a targeted way,” said Ronen Segal, the chief technology officer of Brainsway, based in Jerusalem. “No shocks, no hospitalization. You come into the clinic, you sit in the chair for 20 minutes, you get a series of electromagnetic zaps.”
Unlike electroshock therapy, now known as electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT — a risky and controversial procedure long used to counteract severe depression and other disorders — TMS targets specific regions of the brain rather than the whole organ and at a much lower intensity. Unlike ECT, Brainsway’s clinical trials show TMS carries almost no risk of seizure.
Brainsway is working on using TMS to combat a range of diseases. The company received approval this year from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat depression with TMS, and has European Union permission to use the technique to treat 10 diseases or disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism and even tobacco addiction. Other drug addictions and obesity are next on the company’s list.
Another Israeli company, Neuronix, focuses on Alzheimer’s, which affects 5 million Americans — a number sure to rise as the baby boomer generation ages.
Neuronix and Brainsway were both featured at Braintech Israel 2013, a conference in October highlighting Israel’s growing brain technology industry. Along with medical advancements, the conference showcased innovation in fields such as brain modeling and mind-control gaming.
“It’s widely accepted that we’ve made a lot of progress in heart disease and cancer,” said Miri Polachek, executive director of Israel Brain Technologies, the nonprofit that organized the conference. “The one area where we need to make a big push is the field of brain research.
“It’s no longer science fiction. You can see these things becoming real.”
“Every emotion, thought or action starts with electric activity in the brain,” Brainsway’s Segal said. “The problem is if you have too much or too little activity, you get a brain disorder.”
In a person suffering from depression, for example, the section of the brain that regulates mood isn’t as active as it should be. Electromagnetic pulses targeting that section stimulate brain cells to fire, restoring them to a normal level of activity, Segal says, and teaching them to be more active in the long term.
For Alzheimer’s patients, treatment entails an additional step. Patients who receive Neuronix’s electromagnetic pulse have less than a minute of increased brain activity. During that window, a computer screen flashes a simple task meant to exercise the affected region of the brain — asking patients, in one example, whether two sentences mean the same thing.
Affirming that “The salad has tomatoes” equals “There are tomatoes in the salad” helps sustain the short-term benefit of TMS therapy.
“To understand [the sentences], to process them, to understand whether they have the same meaning, is a challenge,” said Orly Bar, Neuronix’s vice president for marketing. “We want to get to a point where the [brain] mechanism improves.”
While both companies emphasize that treatment should complement existing medication, not replace it, clinical trials show that TMS can be more effective in counteracting Alzheimer’s than current medications. And unlike pills that enter the bloodstream, the electromagnetic zaps have no side effects.
“We know there’s medicine that works on the same mechanism,” Bar said. “There’s no contradiction. They can work together great.”