Flickering light in the eyes could form the basis of a breakthrough Alzheimer’s treatment with the potential to halt or even reverse the disease, research has shown.
Extraordinary results from experiments conducted in the US have revealed a close connection between brain waves and a clinical hallmark of the condition.
Using flickering light to synchronise firing of neurons at a specific frequency, the researchers were able to reduce levels of a toxic brain molecule linked to Alzheimer’s in mice.
Sticky deposits of the beta-amyloid peptide are believed to be at the root of the disease, triggering effects that lead to the progressive destruction of brain cells.
The 40 hertz (cycles per second) electrical oscillations not only reduced beta-amyloid formation, but also stimulated immune cells to clear the harmful material from the brain.
Although at an early stage, the new research raises the exciting prospect of a drug-free alternative to tackling Alzheimer’s.
Lead scientist Professor Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said: “It’s a big ‘if’, because so many things have been shown to work in mice, only to fail in humans.
“But if humans behave similarly to mice in response to this treatment, I would say the potential is just enormous, because it’s so non-invasive, and it’s so accessible.” Michael Sipser, dean of MIT’s School of Science, said the results “may herald a breakthrough” in the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s.
He added: “Our MIT scientists have opened the door to an entirely new direction of research on this brain disorder and the mechanisms that may cause or prevent it. I find it extremely exciting.”
Once crucial limitation to the study, published in the journal Nature, is that the flickering light treatment only affected levels of beta-amyloid in the brain’s visual cortex.
Future work will continue to investigate whether light therapy can have the same effect in other parts of the brain such as the hippocampus, which is the region most affected by Alzheimer’s.