Is ‘flashing-light therapy’ a promising treatment to fight Alzheimer’s disease?

Click to play video: 'MIT researchers develop new light-based therapy to treat Alzheimer’s disease'
MIT researchers develop new light-based therapy to treat Alzheimer’s disease
Could LED light therapy help to fight Alzheimer's disease? Here's what Boston researchers found in their study on mice – Dec 8, 2016

Just weeks after news that yet another Alzheimer’s drug failed in clinical trials, American scientists unveiled a promising therapy that uses flashing LED lights to fight the brain disease.

Researchers out of Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology say that flickering LED lights at a specific frequency helped to “substantially” reduce brain plaque and buildup – at least in mice.

How their findings could translate into humans is unclear, they concede.

“It’s a big ‘if’ because so many things have been shown to work in mice, only to fail in humans. But if humans behave similarly to mice in response to this treatment, I would say the potential is just enormous, because it’s so non-invasive and it’s so accessible,” Dr. Li-Huei Tsai, director of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the study’s lead author, said in a university statement.

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In their ideal scenario, patients could sit down for painless light therapy to help stave off the disease.

Dementia is a chronic condition with steadily rising rates around the world. That’s why the global scientific community is working hard to try to find treatment options to fight the disease. There is no cure.

About 25,000 new cases of dementia are diagnosed each year, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada. It estimates that 564,000 Canadians have dementia right now. By 2031, in just 15 years, it’s warning that 937,000 Canadians will have dementia.

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READ MORE: 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease

While the mechanisms behind Alzheimer’s disease aren’t fully understood yet, scientists say that in its early stages, it’s tied to beta amyloid plaque, a protein that clumps together hurting brain cells and tampering with normal brain function.

With this in mind, the MIT researchers worked with mice that were genetically programmed to develop Alzheimer’s disease but didn’t show any signs of plaque buildup or changes in their behaviour that mark the onset of dementia.

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Even before developing the neurodegenerative disease, the mice had “impaired” brainwaves during patterns of activity tied to learning and memory when they were put in mazes.

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So the scientists used shining-light therapy on the mice – the technique is called optogenetics and it’s supposed to control the activity of neurons and stimulating brain cells. They zeroed in on the hippocampus of the rodents’ brains – this is where memory is formed.

READ MORE: What are the early warning signs and symptoms of dementia?

Turns out, an hour-long session of light therapy helped by reducing buildup of plaque by about 40 to 50 per cent. The therapy activated microglia, nicknamed “scavenger cells,” which attack and clear out plaque in the brain.

With these promising results, the scientists built a device with a strip of LEDs that flicker at different frequencies into the rodents’ eyes. These are quick flickers, about 40 flashes of light per second.

Again, it helped with plaque buildup, especially after an hour-long session daily for a week.

The researchers say their next steps are to try to figure out how long-lasting the treatment is. They’ve started a company called Cognito Theurapeutics to try to carry out human trials.

READ MORE: Watch for these behavioural changes as early warning signs of dementia

“This important announcement may herald a breakthrough in the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, a terrible affliction affecting millions of people and their families around the world,” Michael Sipser, the school’s dean, said. He called the results “extremely promising.”

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The full findings were published Wednesday in the journal Nature. Read the study.

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