Researchers Use Flashlight To Test New Alzheimer’s Therapy Method

The number of people with Alzheimer’s disease is exploding, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The worldwide costs associated with caring for patients with the disease are estimated to total more than $600 billion. One in nine American seniors over age 65 have the disease, and 16 million more Americans will be diagnosed by 2050 if a cure isn’t found, says Alzheimers.net. No cure currently exists for this common disease that affects many elders. However, scientists are racing against time to come up with effective treatments for Alzheimer's disease.

A recent study led by Dr. Li-Huei Tsai at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has uncovered a promising technique for helping people with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers flashed a strobe light near rodents that had brain damage similar to that of Alzheimer’s patients. When the mice were exposed to the light for an hour, protective cells in their brains swallowed up toxic proteins that are correlated with the disease.

Symptoms Of Alzheimer’s

The disease is a type of dementia that’s characterized by forgetfulness and confusion. It progresses over the years, causing memory loss that can affect everyday function. People with Alzheimer’s may ask the same question over and over, forget where they placed objects, lose track of where they are and forget common words.

Although the disease itself is not fatal, the breakdown of brain functions can lead to serious complications. People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble feeding themselves or moving around. This puts them at risk for falls, infection, dehydration, blood clots and pneumonia.

Causes Of Alzheimer’s

To understand how the treatment works, it’s important to comprehend what causes the disease. Doctors have noticed that people with Alzheimer’s have significant changes in their brains. One of these changes is the development of plaques. The sticky clumps of beta-amyloid proteins get in the way of neural communication.

Experts aren’t sure exactly how these plaques cause brain cells to die. They do know that they interfere with brain function and may eventually cause neurons to stop firing. When that happens, symptoms of Alzheimer’s begin to appear.

The processes that cause the devastating disease may be at work for 10 to 20 years before an individual experiences any symptoms. By the time symptoms show up, your brain cells may have been damaged by up to 50 percent. The amyloid plaques that wreak havoc in the brain are also found in the retina.

Neurologists are trying to determine whether it’s possible to predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by detecting the protein in the eye, according to an analysis published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. There is no conclusive evidence for the practice, but it offers promising insight. Scientists are saying that if you can test for markers of the disease in your 50s, you might be able to use certain therapies to protect your brain cells as you age.

Brainwaves And Light Therapy

The brain is always vibrating at a particular frequency. Neural oscillation occurs in waves. The role of brainwaves is not completely understood. However, researchers have noticed that altering the rhythm of gamma waves in the brain can prevent plaques from forming.

Gamma wave activity may be impaired in brains that are predisposed to developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to this MIT article. The strobe light used in the study regulated gamma waves at 40 hertz in certain areas of the brain. Other frequencies did not have the same effect.

Experts have tried to use medication to inhibit plaque buildup, but the results have been discouraging. The light therapy seems to work better, and it doesn’t come with side effects. Moreover, light therapy is not painful or invasive.

Dr. Tsai’s study involved using a light that flashes 40 times per second. That’s a faster flicker than a strobe light at a disco. It’s barely perceptible, yet it has dramatic effects. An hour of exposure resulted in a reduction in beta amyloid for up to 24 hours in the parts of the brain responsible for memory and vision. The outcome was more dramatic when the therapy was conducted every day for seven days.

The light works by stimulating an immune cell response, says BBC. Microglia are the primary immune defense cells in the central nervous system. They seek out and destroy plaques, damaged brain cells, and infectious agents. When gamma waves were stimulated in rodents, the microglia was activated and cleared out more beta amyloid proteins.

The gamma waves also reduced the levels of Tau protein, which twist into tangles within brain cells. These kinks obstruct neural communication and may be partially responsible for brain cell decline.

Tsai’s researchers are extending their research to investigate whether the light can affect other regions of the brain. However, the results have yet to be studied in humans. Also, some experts believe that targeting beta amyloid isn’t the right course of action for Alzheimer’s research, according to CNBC.

Still, there is a lot of excitement surrounding this work. If humans’ brains respond to the light the way mouse brains do, there is a great deal of promise in this gentle treatment.

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