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Improving Memory Loss in Older Adults with Joel Voss, PhD

As we age, almost all of us have some memory loss. This age-related affliction is normal, but a new Northwestern Medicine study suggests it can be improved with non-invasive brain stimulation that sends electromagnetic pulses into a specific area of the brain. Joel Voss, PhD, an associate professor at Northwestern, led this study, published in the journal Neurology.


Joel Voss

"At baseline ... (the older adults) were worse off than the young adults, significantly worse off compared to the young adults. After receiving their five days of stimulation and coming back a day later, we can no longer statistically tell them apart from the young adults, so it improved their memory to a level where they no longer were age-impaired."

Joel Voss, PhD

  • Associate Professor of Medical Social Sciences
  • Associate Professor of Neurology
  • Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Episode Summary

Joel Voss, PhD, has been using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in his lab for the past several years in experiments that have improved memory loss. 

Joel Voss: "The brain is complex. Memory function is complex. We don't fully understand how the brain supports memory. We have some clues. The real question that we're addressing here is not just whether or not we can make people's memory better ... the real question is, can you use something like noninvasive brain stimulation to actually change the function of brain networks involved in memory and does that affect people's memory performance?"

Voss' lab studied young people and found that TMS can improve their memory by targeting specific brain networks. These studies focused on improving what is called episodic memory, a particular kind of memory that the hippocampus area of the brain cares about the most. It is also the kind of memory that declines the most and leads us to forget where we put our car keys or the name of a new neighbor. For his latest study, published in the journal Neurology, Voss chose to focus on adults over the age of 64, to see if the TMS procedure would work the same in older adults as in young adults. 

Joel Voss: "Not surprisingly, when older adults first walk through the door, they don't perform the memory task as well as young adults do, because pretty much all people experience some level of age-related memory weakening, where they have not as good as the ability to remember new things as they did themselves years before and relative to other younger adults, too."

The participants underwent MRIs and a battery of memory tests before receiving TMS. They received 20 minutes of TMS for five days in a row. 

Joel Voss: "After receiving their five days of stimulation and coming back a day later, we can no longer statistically tell them apart from the young adults, so it improved their memory to a level where they no longer were age-impaired, so to speak."

The effect lasted 24 hours and caused the changes in the brain and improved memory performance Voss had achieved in other age groups. He plans to design another study that would extend the number of days participants are exposed to TMS to see if the improved memory effect can last longer. 

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Continuing Medical Education Credit

Physicians who listen to this podcast may claim continuing medical education credit after listening to an episode of this program.

Target Audience

Academic/Research, Multiple specialties

Learning Objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

  1. Identify the research interests and initiatives of Feinberg faculty.
  2. Discuss new updates in clinical and translational research.
Accreditation Statement

The Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) to provide continuing medical education for physicians.

Credit Designation Statement

The Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine designates this Enduring Material for a maximum of 0.5 AMA PRA Category 1 Credit(s)™. Physicians should claim only the credit commensurate with the extent of their participation in the activity.

Disclosure Statement

Joel Voss, PhD, has nothing to disclose. Course director, Robert Rosa, MD, has nothing to disclose. Planning committee member, Erin Spain, has nothing to disclose. Feinberg School of Medicine's CME Leadership and Staff have nothing to disclose: Clara J. Schroedl, MD, Medical Director of CME, Sheryl Corey, Manager of CME, Jennifer Banys, Senior Program Administrator, Allison McCollum, Senior Program Coordinator, and Rhea Alexis Banks, Administrative Assistant 2.

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