Could magnets stop us falling over?

Non-invasive brain stimulation using an applied magnetic field can strengthen brain connections that weaken as we age.

Perth researchers hope to use this technique to improve the quality of life and reduce the risk of falls and injuries in older people.

Past the age of about 60, there’s a weakening of the structural connections between the three different areas of the brain that control our decision-making processes, our ‘planning’ centres, and our fine-motor control.

It’s the connections between those areas that ultimately allow us to successfully interact with our environment, for example adjusting our foot placement when we step on uneven paving.

Dr Ann-Maree Vallence of Murdoch University has been testing these connections in old and young brains, and has confirmed weakened connectivity between planning and motor control parts of the brains in older adults.

“This reduces our control of voluntary movement such as precise hand movements,” Ann-Maree says.

“It’s why older people lose the ability for fine movements – putting a key in a lock or all the tasks required for cooking a meal.”

She’s now testing the ability of repetitive, non-invasive brain stimulation to strengthen these connections, in older, less ‘plastic’ brains.

The next step would be testing the effect on motor control after a couple of weeks of daily magnetic stimulation. “I would be looking for an improvement in fine-motor ability, and better balance,” Ann-Maree says.

Such a treatment, allied with physical and cognitive exercise, would aim for not only fewer falls but better quality of life overall.

The research is supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council, Western Australian Government, and the Rebecca Cooper Medical Research Foundation.

For more information:
Murdoch University
Ann-Maree Vallence
+61 8 9360 7464