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Laboratory experiments show that simply being exposed to a flickering light reorganizes the brain so it produces fewer of the tangled proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

The key to beating Alzheimer's may be as simple as exposure to a flickering light.

Right now, evidence for this new method of breaking down the tangled tau proteins that strangle neurons is limited to laboratory experiments with mice, but because of the ease, low cost, and safety of this form of light therapy, clinical trials that fight senile dementia  could be quickly on the way.

An Unexpected Tool for Fighting Senile Dementia

This good news about treating the amyloid proteins that form brain plaques comes from the laboratory of Dr. Ed Boyden at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Boyden and his team exposed mice to a light flickering 40 times a second. The visual centers of the mice's brains processed this 40 Hertz signal by oscillating together. The newly synchronized cells generated gamma waves, which are created at lower levels in various neurological conditions.

What's a brain wave? Your brain is made up of about 10 billion cells called neurons. These neurons use electricity to send messages to each other. Millions of cells firing at the same time create a "wave" of energy that can be detecting by electroencephalography, or EEG. A gamma wave is the highest frequency brain wave, usually oscillating 20 to 50 times a second.

Dr. Boyden's research team found that when the brain oscillates at 40 Hertz, not faster, not slower, genes that produce chemicals that break down a kind of protein know as amyloid are activated.

Amyloid proteins form tangles that interfere with the ability of neurons to fire to send a signal to their neighbors. Eventually amyloid proteins accumulate and the neuron dies. When enough neurons die, the resulting damage to the brain causes Alzheimer's. (Not absolutely every case of amyloid accumulation causes Alzheimer's and not absolutely every case of Alzheimer's involves amyloid plaques, but most do.)

When the mice in Boyden's lab were exposed to 40 Hz light for an hour a day, their brains showed fewer amyloid tangles. Less amyloid was produced, and some of the amyloid that was produced was broken down.


Boyden's Light Therapy Fights Alzheimer's in Two Different Ways

Some of the drugs used to treat Alzheimer's disease target the production of the beta-amyloid plaques that "strangle" brain cells. These drugs are successful in the sense that they break down the protein, but they are mostly a failure in that the patients who are treated with them do not recover their intellectual abilities.

Some scientists believe that the failure of these drugs indicates that the real problem in Alzheimer's disease is the creation of tau proteins inside neurons.In Boyden's experiments, flickering light therapy reduces both beta-amyloid plaques and tau proteins. This kind of light therapy may tackle both of the kinds of protein degradation that cause senile dementia. There is, however, a catch in Boyden's research findings.

To date, research only shows that this kind of light therapy restores neuron health in the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information. Boyden has not yet found a way to target the hippocampus, the part of the brain that forms and retrieves short-term memories.

However, there are other methods in development that stimulate gamma wave entrainment in the brain as a whole.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Hamblin MR. Shining light on the head: Photobiomodulation for brain disorders. BBA Clin. 2016 Oct 1. 6:113-124. Review. PMID: 27752476.
  • Iaccarino HF, Singer AC, Martorell AJ, Rudenko A, Gao F, Gillingham TZ, Mathys H, Seo J, Kritskiy O, Abdurrob F, Adaikkan C, Canter RG, Rueda R, Brown EN, Boyden ES, Tsai LH. Gamma frequency entrainment attenuates amyloid load and modifies microglia. Nature. 2016 Dec 7. 540(7632):230-235. doi: 10.1038/nature20587. PMID: 27929004.
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