To sceptics of alternative medicine, it will come as a surprise. Applying magnets to the brains of Alzheimer's disease sufferers helps them understand what is said to them. The finding by Italian scientsts, who conducted a randomised controlled trial of the treatment, suggests that magnets may alter "cortical activity" in the brain, readjusting unhealthy patterns caused by disease or damage. The study was small, involving just 10 patients, and the results are preliminary.
But the scientists from Brescia and Milan say they "hold considerable promise, not only for advancing our understanding of brain plasticity mechanisms, but also for designing new rehabilitation strategies in patients with neurodegenerative disease."
Sweeping claims are made for magnet therapy, including stimulating hair growth, boosting energy and warding off arthritis. Magnetic bracelets and jewellery, hairbrushes, insoles and even dog bowls are a lucrative branch of the alternative medicine industry.
Evidence for most of these claims is dubious or non-existent. But one product gained sufficient credence in orthodox circles to to be made available on the NHS. Since 2006 a device called the 4UlcerCare – a strap containing four magnets that is wrapped around the leg – has been available on prescription from GPs. Its maker, the Bristol-based firm Magnopulse, claims that it speeds the healing of leg ulcers and prevents their recurrence. It is believed that the magnets stimulate the circulation but it is not known how.
Findings from the latest study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, are likely to be seized on as further evidence of magnetism's healing powers. Although many may scoff, the capacity of magnets to affect the working of the brain is already well established.