Can Flickering Lights Treat Alzheimer’s?

At 40 hertz, the brain releases a surge of signaling chemicals that may help fight Alzheimer's.

Researchers discovered in the lab that the exposure to light pulsing at 40 hertz—40 beats per second—causes brains to release a surge of signaling chemicals that may help fight the disease.

Though conducted on healthy mice, the study directly connects to human trials, in which researchers exposed Alzheimer’s patients to 40 Hz light and sound. Insights gained in mice are informing the human trials in collaboration with Emory University.

“I’ll be running samples from mice in the lab, and around the same time, a colleague will be doing a strikingly similar analysis on patient fluid samples,” says first author Kristie Garza, a graduate research assistant in the lab of Annabelle Singer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and also a member of Emory’s neuroscience program.

One of the surging signaling molecules in the study on mice is strongly associated with the activation of brain immune cells called microglia, which purge an Alzheimer’s hallmark—amyloid beta plaque, junk protein that accumulates between brain cells.

At 40 hertz, the brain releases a surge of signaling chemicals that may help fight Alzheimer’s. Sams is taking part in the four- to eight-week trial for the flicker device and said that the idea of this is encouraging.

“They have to sit with this flashing light and repetitive sound stimulation for an hour each day for either four weeks or eight weeks,” detailed Dr. James Lah, an associate professor of neurology at Emory University.

The researchers said this stimulation may also be useful for other neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s or schizophrenia. They also advise against people improvising light therapies on their own or buying from companies claiming to have the same frequencies, because getting frequencies wrong could possibly do damage.

The most obvious neurological change associated with Alzheimer’s disease is the build-up of toxic amyloid plaques that form outside cells, and tangles of tau proteins within the neurons themselves.

Both appear to wreak havoc on our neurons and their synapses – the connections that allow our neurons to communicate with each other. There can be little wonder that much of the Alzheimer’s research over the past three decades has focused on finding drugs to remove these plaques – yet we are still waiting for a breakthrough treatment.

Now a spate of new studies suggests that an electrical, rather than chemical, approach to treatment may be the answer. And it all hinges on those gamma rhythms, which appear to trigger a kind of clean-up operation in the brain, removing toxins before they can do damage.

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