Alzheimer's treatment might someday just use flickering LEDs

Alzheimer's disease is a growing cause for concern in the world today. In the US alone, about 5 million people are reported to be affected. And that number is predicted to grow even more in the very near future. And as there is no known cure for it, Alzheimer's patients and their families are left to resort to treatments that are usually expensive and, in the long run, only temporary. Researchers at MIT, however, may have come across a possible new mode of treatment that shows promising results. And it involves nothing more than flashing LEDs lights at eyes.

Alzheimer's disease is considered to be caused by the accumulation of beta amyloid plaque that, in a nutshell, prevent neurons from firing off at a regular rate. These neurons, particularly in the area of the brain called the hippocampus, are critical for the brain's memory functions, the very thing that Alzheimer's attack and destroy. The goal for researchers such as Li-Huei Tsai, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience, at the MIT Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, is therefore to reduce, if not to eliminate, these beta amyloid plaques.

For that purpose, the laboratory made use of mice that were genetically engineered to develop Alzheimer's disease. The core theory of the treatment was to artificially induce gamma oscillations, brain waves related to the proper formation and retrieval of memory, at the rate of 40 Hz, using optogentics. That method, which practically involves sticking a wire inside the mouse's brain, couldn't be used on humans, so the researchers switched to an LED light array that could be controlled to flicker at 40 Hz, producing the same effect.

The results, though still not conclusive, were promising. Wit just one hour of exposure, mice that underwent the light therapy showed 40 to 50% reduction in beta amyloids in the hippocampus and had an increase in gamma oscillations. In addition, microglia cells, basically the brain's janitors, became more active in clearing out beta amyloid plaque. Two for the price of one.

It isn't a done deal, however, otherwise they'd be breaking out the champagne already. After 24 hours, the mice's brains returned to their normal, Alzheimer's inducing level of beta amyloids. The researchers have tried to perform the treatment for 7 days for one hour each day. And though the effects seem to have lasted, it's still not clear for how long. Even more important, the treatment hasn't yet been tested on humans, so it isn't certain if our brains will react similarly to such stimuli. Fortunately, since the treatment is non-invasive, it will be easier and safer to test than optogenetics.