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Research Brings a Flicker of Hope to Families Facing Alzheimer’s Disease

Every family who’s experienced it knows the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease. One of the most painful things about the disease is the hopelessness of it: we stand by helplessly as the person we love declines. This is a cruel, one-way disease, we feel. It’s only going to get worse.

 

And yet there is something in the human spirit that always hopes. Hope is hard-wired into our very souls. So we keep searching for a cure, or at least an improvement, whether we’re caregivers looking for some change in routine or new activity that seems to bring some light back into the eyes of the one we love, or researchers working with the latest technology to find the cause — and maybe the cure — for Alzheimer’s.

We know something about the physiological causes of Alzheimer’s-related dementia: knots of protein within the brain’s neurons (tau tangles) that cripple the cells, or collections of material (amyloid beta plaques) that disrupt communication between them.

But it’s one thing to know what’s causing the problem. It’s another thing to learn how to fix it. Where can scientists look for hope?

The best medicine comes from within the body.

With the medical sciences, often the best insights come from studying the body’s ways of healing itself. We’re all familiar with the basics — white blood cells that attack invaders — and we’re discovering new details all the time. Apparently, for example, inflammation acts like a beacon to bring the immune system’s defenses to the right place. The best medicine comes from within the body.

Dr. Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, might have had this general principle in mind when she set up her experiments with mice who had been caused to develop Alzheimer’s disease. She exposed them to lights that flashed at the same frequency as the natural oscillation of neurons. She was encouraging the brain to resume its natural rhythms that had been disrupted by Alzheimer’s disease.

To all our benefit, she proved her theory, discovering that the lights appeared to increase the efficacy and strength of the brain’s natural defense against both the tau tangles and the amyloid beta plaques. The lights seemed to activate cells called microglia, which clean up the toxic build-up. The results she observed in the mice were dramatic, both in the improvement of their cognitive abilities and the actual reduction of tangles in their brains.

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence to me that light is at the heart of her discovery. How fitting that it is light, an age-old symbol of undying hope in the human mind, that shows promise of encouraging the human brain to heal itself.