Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease that leaves human beings of exceptionally clever dispositions suddenly afflicted with a total lack of dignity, reducing them to mere vegetables unable to remember things, recognise people or even able to do the most mundane things. So far no cure has been found to alleviate the devastating effects on sufferers despite many years of research.
However, it seems that flashing lights in the eyes of those afflicted could be a new weapon in the battle against the disease, a new study suggests. In an extremely exciting new avenue of research, flickering lights were found to drastically reduce levels of plaque in the brain in mice with Alzheimer’s symptoms.
In Alzheimer’s disease, pieces of protein build up to form plaques which cause the brain cells beneath to become inactive, stopping the brain’s normal function and blocking signals. But the light treatment was found to encourage cells to begin firing normally again. As the normal pattern was resumed, this boosted the natural immune response of the brain.
‘Scavenger cells’ – called microglia – were activated in the brain and began to eat the plaques. Researchers exposed mice to the flashing lights for an hour a day for seven days and discovered dramatic results. The amount of amyloid plaques had been reduced by up to 60%. Although at an early stage, the new research raises the exciting prospect of a drug-free alternative to tackling Alzheimer’s.
Lead scientist Professor Li-Huei Tsai of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said: ‘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 that the potential is just enormous because it is so non-evasive and it’s so accessible.’
Michael Sipser, Dean of MIT’s School of Science, said the results herald a breakthrough in the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s. He added: ‘Our scientists have opened the door to an entirely new direction of research on this brain disorder and the mechanisms that may cause or prevent it. I find it extremely exciting.’
The researchers told the journal Natural that in a healthy brain cells fire in a synchronised way between 25 and 80 times a second. The pattern – called ‘gamma oscillation’ – is less likely to be seen in Alzheimer’s patients, but it is thought to be essential for normal brain functions such as attention, perception and memory.
By flickering LED lights at 40 hertz – 40 times a second – brain cells in the mice began to fire in an organised way again. An hour of exposure to the flickering lights cleared away half the plaques that had built up in the visual cortex brain regions of mice in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s. But the deposits return to their original levels within 24 hours. Repeating the treatment for seven days led to a 60% reduction in plaques in the visual cortex, proving that the effects could be sustained.
Another major result showed that the treatment also curbed the build-up of Tau protein ‘tangles’ within brain cells, a second hallmark of Alzheimer’s that may follow on from the accumulation of plaques.
British experts described the findings as interesting but cautioned that any potential treatment for humans was still a long way off.
Doctor David Reynolds, chief scientific officer at Alzheimer Research UK, said: ‘It is conceivable that changing brain cell rhythms could be a future target for therapies, but researchers will need to explore how light flickering approaches could not only reduce amyloid in the visual area of the brain but in those areas more commonly affected in Alzheimer’s.’
If the latest research were to prove conclusive, the spread of Alzheimer’s could be arrested to the great benefit of humanity. Let us pray it will not be too long before it is realised.