With Alzheimer’s continuing to impact a record number of Americans each year, it’s no surprise to see doctors looking beyond a cure to the role that adjunct therapies can have in lessening its effects. The technique of light therapy, in use since the mid-1980’s primarily for sleep disorders and seasonal depression is one that doctors have explored in recent years as possibly beneficial for people afflicted with dementia.
Understanding Light Therapy
Sometimes called photo therapy, light therapy can take a number of forms (flashing lights or low lights, for example) but usually involves a person sitting at a light box for a certain number of hours, at a specific time of day – typically the morning, when we’re supposed to be at our most alert. By exposing the patient to a concentrated amount of bright light at a normally wakeful time, the technique is meant to help reset interrupted circadian rhythms that can disrupt sleep and cause Seasonal Affective Disorder. Because of its role in regulating sleep, light therapy has also been found effective in mitigating the effects of depression, when used in conjunction with prescribed medication.
Light Therapy and Alzheimer’s
While experts caution that research is still in its early stages, there is some evidence that light therapy can produce positive outcomes in people suffering from Alzheimer’s. Scientists are particularly focused on these areas:
- Sleep Disturbance: Sleep issues are common among people with dementia. Perhaps because of its help with circadian rhythm regulation, light therapy has been shown in some limited studies to help regulate the sleep patterns of dementia sufferers. Scientists are exploring whether certain types of light are more effective in this area – blue light over flashing or bright light, for example.
- Cognitive Function: Light therapy is designed to stimulate brain neurons to fire together at higher frequency and function. Studies on mice have shown that light therapy may improve the so-called gamma levels associated with better brain function, as well as reduce the levels of beta-amyloid plaques – the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. The jury is still out on exactly how beneficial it is on human cognition, but these early results are nonetheless encouraging.
- Behavioral Issues: Many of us are familiar with the agitation and other behavioral disturbances associated with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. While in its early stages, field research is uncovering the potentially positive effect of bright light therapy in reducing agitation in particular. These results are especially encouraging, considering the prescription medications normally given can have severe side effects.
Lots more to come on this promising topic – as always, keep tuned in to the Alzheimer’s Association for the latest on research and discovery!