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A Winnipeg researcher who is studying a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease is looking for more participants for her program —and just got the funding to help more people access it.

Zahra Moussavi, a biomedical engineer and University of Manitoba professor, is analyzing the use of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) on subjects with early- to moderate-stage dementia and Alzheimer’s, which affects an estimated 22,500 Manitobans. Dementia has no known cure and is nearing pandemic levels worldwide, as the baby boom generation ages.

For roughly 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for four weeks, a magnetic coil is held over the patient’s head, sending 20 high-frequency pulses per second to the brain.

"When we give them at a high frequency, it excites the neurons," Moussavi said. "It’s helping neurons that have become inactive.

"We don’t expect the treatment to make a miracle, but we have seen people who are responsive to rTMS," said the researcher seeking to learn if the process — which has been used for decades to treat a number of neurological and psychiatric conditions — can reduce the effects of Alzheimer’s and fight the progression of the disease.

To do that, she needs at least 100 study participants. However, for people with dementia, getting around isn’t easy.

"Someone has to bring the patient every day," said Moussavi, who received $1.8 million from the Weston Brain Institute in 2016 for the study, which she runs at three sites: in Winnipeg at Riverview Health Centre, Montreal and Melbourne, Australia.

Globally, it’s the largest study for the potential treatment of Alzheimer’s using the pulsating magnetic coil.

"Some patients have no one to drive them," said Moussavi, who recently received a four-year, $400,000 donation to help with transportation costs of study participants in Manitoba.

"This donation allows people to come," she said. So far, there have been participants from Winnipeg, Gimli, and as far away as a three-hour drive. "Some had family members here who they stayed with."

With the recent donation, Moussavi can pay for participants to take a cab to and from Riverview, and open up the program to out-of-towners. "I can help them with $2,000 for the family to rent accommodations in Winnipeg for the duration of the treatment."

So far, Moussavi, who is also studying the effect of brain exercises on dementia patients, has had 36 participants in the rTMS study."Not everybody is responsive to rTMS," she said.

The Alzheimer Society of Manitoba said it is interested in the program’s results. By using a control group and a treatment group, Moussavi’s study should highlight its effectiveness, said Norma Kirkby, the society’s program co-ordinator.

"It will be able to give good evidence on its outcomes," Kirkby said. Those who are in the control group and not receiving rTMS are eligible to undergo treatments after completing the series.

The society has had feedback from some study subjects, saying the treatment was beneficial, and from others who said it made no difference, Kirkby said.

In the end, the hope is "everyone will know what its potential is."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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