A University of Manitoba researcher has received a major funding boost to study a possible new treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering Zahra Moussavi received $1.7 million from the Weston Brain Institute, a privately financed initiative that targets brain disease.

The funding will be used for the first large clinical trial of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) treatment for Alzehimer's disease.

 Zahra Moussavi

Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering Zahra Moussavi received $1.7 million from the Weston Brain Institute for her research. (University of Manitoba/Website)

TMS treatment involves placing a coil on the patient's scalp to produce a magnetic field.

The magnetic fields give off pulses which pass through the skull to induce a current inside the brain, Moussavi explained.

"So it indirectly activates the neuronal activity, increases the excitability — or, if it is given at low frequency, it increases inhibition," she said.

The treatment is non-invasive and feels a bit like poking to the head for about 10 minutes.

TMS at low or high frequencies has been used to treat other neurological and neurodegenerative disorders but it is still largely at the research stage.

Pilot project showed promising results

Moussavi did a pilot project with repetitive TMS, which was the first in North America, a few years ago. Without substantive funding she couldn't continue but said it laid the groundwork for the proposal for the Weston Brain Institute.

The pilot tested 10 patients and there were promising results. Moussavi said the people at early stages of Alzheimer's had significant improvements, and those with more moderate cases of Alzheimer's improved slightly.

People with advanced Alzehimer's didn't improve, but Moussavi said their condition also didn't decline.

"Alzheimer's disease is a neurodegenerative disease. We are basically battling a disease that is going downhill, so any effort to stabilize the condition could be considered an improvement," she said.

While Moussavi said the results were "very encouraging," the sample size was too small to know how successful it would be on a large scale.

The new funding will allow for the first large placebo-controlled double-blind study to see just how successful TMS treatment could be for Alzheimer's.

"The Weston Brain Institute is pleased to support this kind of critical high-risk, high-reward work," said Alexandra Stewart, executive director at the Weston Brain Institute, in a news release.

The multi-centre clinical trial will involve the University of Manitoba working with McGill University and Monash University in Australia.