Flickering Light Could — Key Word Could — Treat Alzheimer’s

By Nathaniel Scharping | December 7, 2016 12:12 pm

(Credit: Piotr Krzeslak.Shutterstock)

Staring into a flickering light could help treat Alzheimer’s disease.

Using a mouse model, researchers from MIT have demonstrated that flashing light at a specific frequency can alter patterns of brain activity in a way that reduces levels of amyloid-beta plaque in the brain. While human trials haven’t begun, this approach to treating the neurodegenerative disease is quite novel, and the method could treat a range of diseases in the brain.

Proteins Turn Toxic

While we have made little progress with treating Alzheimer’s, it seems to be correlated with excess levels of the amyloid-beta protein in the brain, which can cause toxic plaques to accumulate and affect brain function. The MIT team says that it’s able to inhibit the formation of these plaques by stimulating the brain’s immune system, made up of microglial cells, to clear out the amyloid-beta proteins and help to restore normal brain function.

Smoothing a particular pattern of synchronized neural activity, what we colloquially call brain waves, seems to kick microglial cells into action. In people with Alzheimer’s, brain waves called gamma oscillations no longer occur at the regular rate. In their experiment, the researchers used flashes of light to tune gamma oscillations in mouse brains, effectively resetting them to pulse at their normal rate of 40 Hertz.

“In short, by resetting disruptive neural activity, we can activate immune genes in the brain which kickstart microglia to remove amyloid beta plaques and potentially halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Annabelle Singer, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a co-author of the paper, which was published Wednesday in Nature.

Flashing Lights Heal

The researchers think that the flashing light stimulates a kind of chain reaction that begins in the visual cortex and spreads to other neurons in the brain, bringing them all back into rhythm with each other. How the restored pattern of neural activity convinces the microglia to get to work is still not understood, though. Using RNA sequencing, the researchers found upregulation of genes related to the microglia following the therapy, but were unable to trace the mechanism any further back.

In an accompanying article, Liviu Aron and Bruce Yankner of Harvard Medical School suggest that it could have something to do with “synaptic pruning,” a normal process of neural trimming that could get out of hand in people with Alzheimer’s disease. They also add that the “elegant” experiment shows promise for regulating the activity of other proteins in the brain, suggesting that the concept could be applied to a potentially broad range of diseases and disorders.

Any implementation in humans will have to wait, however. This study was only conducted in mice, and such studies are known to fail when translated to humans. Whether human diseases can be treated with just a flashing light remains to be seen — but the preliminary results are nonetheless exciting.

  • Bob

    massage the neck , moderate exercise ..the amyloid plaque starts building up from below the brain ….it’s a mechanical problem ….fluid dynamics…….that’s why the drugs don’t work…but hey waste millions….
    deltoids, shoulder, all associated muscles making the fascia connection

  • birdonawire

    So if I change the refresh rate on my monitor to 40hz I can cure Alzheimers?

    • mattgaidica

      Not likely, remember that the researchers are flickering lights at 40 Hz, or turning them ‘on’ and ‘off’ 40 times per second. Although some older computer monitors come closer to this, modern LED screens are simply updating their pixels at their specified refresh rate. In addition, this happens as a sweep, usually from the top of the screen download over a matter of a few milliseconds. So rather than the whole screen turning off, updating pixel values, and coming back on, single pixel values are simply adjusting to reflect some new value based on user input (e.g. the user opened a new application).

  • RickFromTexas

    If these trials are successful, why limit them to only using light, why not try mild electrical currents and magnetic pulses at the same frequency(s) as well, to test whether they broaden the effects?

  • Ken_g6

    This makes me wonder whether, if alternating current frequencies had been set to 40 or 80 Hz, instead of 60, would Alzheimer’s not even be a problem?

    • Martha Bartha

      You may have a point there!

    • mattgaidica

      Remember: the effect has been shown to be local to the stimulation. Therefore, there remains to be evidence that external lighting can decrease amyloid clumping outside of visual cortex. Clearing amyloid beta in visual cortex likely doesn’t do a whole lot of good for those with frontotemporal dementia.

  • Martha Bartha

    How bout Weed?

  • Sean Rowshandel


    • mattgaidica

      That’s not true, Sean. The first set of experiments used optogenetics but the second set used external lighting in non-CRE mice. Almost certainly where your skepticism is warranted is that only neurons receiving “direct” stimulation show the decrease in beta amyloid. That is, in the optogenetics experiments the hippocampus showed a reduction, and with external lights, the visual cortex did the same.

  • Neil Carmichael

    Binaural beats claims to induce different brain frequencys with just a simple pair of headphones, would that work?


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