Scientist Li-Huei Tsai’s research into Alzheimer’s has a very personal motivation. The grandmother who brought her up suffered from the debilitating disease. The researcher told the science journal Nature, “Her confused face made a deep imprint in my mind. This is the biggest challenge of our lifetime, and I will give it all I have.” And now Tsai may have made a crucial breakthrough in the treatment of dementia.
Tsai had been working with mice genetically engineered to display one of the tell-tale signs that humans show when they are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. People with the condition have a build-up in the brain of a protein called beta amyloid. This forms plaques which in turn can kill brain cells resulting in the typical dementia symptoms of amnesia and confusion.
So far drug therapies have had little success in treating dementia, so Tsai and her team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took a different approach. In what Nature described as a “tiny disco” the rodents were subjected to rapidly flashing lights. Tsai used the lights in the hope that they would inhibit the formation of dementia-related plaques.
And the results caught the attention of medical researchers around the world. After dissection, the brains of those mice that had been exposed to the flashing lights were compared with a control group which had not. The “disco” mice had measurably lower levels of the harmful dementia-inducing beta amyloid protein plaque. And the longer the mice were exposed to lights, the more pronounced were the results.
Dr. Tsai herself was startled by the outcome of her experiments. “For the longest time, I didn’t believe it,” she told Nature. But after rigorous checking of her results, it seems the effect is real. Now the question is: can these reactions to light be duplicated in humans? Clinical trials are currently under way. “We are optimistic,” Tsai told the BBC.