Could flickering light treat Alzheimer's?

By AFP   December 7, 2016 | 06:23 pm PT
Alzheimer's accounts for 60-70 percent of dementia cases.

Scientists have used flickering LED lights to shrink, in mouse brains, the beta amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's Disease in humans, they reported on Wednesday.

While too early to say if this could translate into a much-needed treatment for the debilitating illness, it does present a promising avenue for further research, said the team -- some of whom have started a company to do just that.

"It's a big 'if'," said Li-Huei Tsai of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-authored the study.

"But if humans behave similarly to mice in response to this treatment, I would say the potential is just enormous, because it is so non-invasive and it's so accessible."

She underlined that many therapies shown to work in mice in the past have failed in humans.

Her cautionary note was echoed by outside experts, who said the findings were "potentially" interesting.

The therapy is believed to work by inducing electrical brain waves thought to have become dysfunctional in people with Alzheimer's.

It involves exposing mice to flickering LED light to try and influence the brain's electrical activity.

After an hour of stimulation, the researchers found a 40- to 50-percent lowering of beta amyloid levels in the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memory is thought to reside, they said.

And after a week of treatment, plaques and free-floating amyloid proteins were "markedly reduced," the team said in a statement.

According to the World Health Organization, dementia affects some 47.5 million people worldwide -- with 7.7 million new cases every year.

Alzheimer's is the most common cause, responsible for 60-70 percent of dementia cases.

The disease typically progresses from forgetfulness and absent-mindedness to major memory loss and near total dependence as sufferers become unaware of time and place.

Alzheimer's was first identified more than 100 years ago, but there is still no effective treatment or cure, and scientists disagree on its causes -- including the role of beta amyloid plaques.

Not all people with plaques will develop Alzheimer's.

The study "might well give us a spark for new avenues of research to further explore the relationship between rhythms of electrical activity in the brain and Alzheimer's Disease," said Doug Brown, director of research at the Alzheimer's Society, a British charity.

"Unfortunately, it's not completely clear what causes these rhythms to be disrupted in the first place or whether these findings will benefit people."

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