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Light Therapy for Alzheimer's

Kimberly Fowler
By Kimberly FowlerMay 24, 2017

Alzheimer’s disease is devastating for a person and their family to experience. This disease, which is the most common form of dementia, is responsible for destroying brain cells and robbing individuals of their memories, thinking abilities and identity.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined, and since 2000, deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have increased by 89%. This epidemic is wreaking havoc on our healthcare system, and more importantly, on families across the nation.

Experimental Therapy Sheds Light on Alzheimer’s

Although there is currently no cure or effective treatment for halting Alzheimer’s disease, research continues on traditional and alternative drug therapies.

Light therapy is an exciting alternative therapy and potential treatment option being researched in mice. This therapy has been proven to restore gamma levels and reduce beta-amyloid levels, the latter of which forms a plaque that clogs the brain and is a distinctive hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

What is Light Therapy?

Light therapy treatment involves flashing lights at a certain brightness and speed to help more brain neurons fire together at gamma frequencies. Studies have been conducted by scientist Li-Huei Tsai, Ph.D., and her research team, using genetically engineered mice and LED lights that flickered at 40 Hz for one hour.

Tsai’s results suggest that light therapy successfully increases gamma power in the brain and reduces beta-amyloid plaques by more than 50%. According to a review by Cognitive Vitality, even when older mice were treated at later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, just one week of light therapy reduced beta-amyloid levels and other features of the disease.

Do Mice Get Alzheimer’s Disease?

Although mice are widely used in studies of Alzheimer’s disease, they do not in fact naturally have Alzheimer’s. Instead, scientists have genetically created “mouse models” — giving mice the major neuropathological hallmarks of the disease, namely, amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. “These mice recapitulate many, although not all, of the key features of AD, and have been widely used in AD research,” an article in the National Center for Biotechnology Information explains.

The Dark Side of Light Therapy

Although exciting, there are downsides to the existing research surrounding light therapy. To date, studies have primarily been conducted using mice as subjects. Oftentimes in medical research, experiments can be very successful and promising using mice, however, the results do not translate when applied to humans.

Secondly, light therapy did not positively change the hippocampus, a major area of the brain affected in Alzheimer’s disease. In the mice, the reduction in beta-amyloid was only found in the brain’s visual cortex.

Light Therapy on Humans

This is not the first time that research into light therapy for Alzheimer’s disease has been conducted. According to an article by Best Alzheimer’s Products, two separate studies have produced positive findings. Burns and Byrne, in a study published in the British Medical Journal, found that dementia patients who sat in front of a bright light for two hours each morning slept more deeply and for an average of 40 minutes longer.

As well, a study by a Dutch research group, published June 11, 2008, suggested that bright light therapy in combination with melatonin, improves symptoms of disturbed cognition, mood, behavior, functional abilities and sleep.

Light therapy is still in the early research phase, and although it is by no means a cure or treatment option at this point, it is a startlingly simple and exciting concept that could revolutionize the management of such a complex disease.

Support for Caregivers

The Alzheimer’s Association is not only dedicated to developing better ways to care for affected people, it is also concentrating on improving support to their families, friends and caregivers.

In 2016 alone, 15 million Americans provided unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. Caregiver support is available to assist with the daily struggles of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Whether it is day-to-day help or planning for the future, the Alzheimer’s Association has information and resources to support caregivers along their journey. Visit their website for more information about the programs near you.

Have you tried light therapy for your loved one one living with dementia? Would you? We would love to hear your experiences and thoughts in the comments below. 

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Kimberly Fowler
Kimberly Fowler
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