Alzheimer’s Patients Help Advance Research by Getting Experimental “Flicker” Treatment

Jackie Spierman is a 77-year-old retired psychotherapist who has always believed in the power of science. She and her husband, David, fill their lives full of friends, family, and volunteer work. Now Jackie is also one of 10 participants in a trial of a new Alzheimer’s treatment that aims to slow the disease. She hopes that by participating, she may be making lives better for future Alzheimer’s patients.

Jackie was diagnosed not long ago with mild cognitive impairment, which is often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. She says she was the first to realize something was wrong, while all her friends thought her inability to remember names was just a normal sign of aging.

Photo: YouTube/Emory Healthcare

Since her diagnosis, Jackie has volunteered to participate in a trial for a new therapy known as “flicker” treatment. For one hour every day, Jackie wears goggles that flash bright lights in her eyes and headphones make a buzzing noise in her ears.

“To me, it’s not painfully loud,” she says. “And the lights are not as bright as you would think they are…I don’t find them to be annoying.”

The lights and noises are set at a frequency of 40 Hertz, or 40 times per second, which corresponds to the frequency of gamma waves in the brain, which are the fastest type of brain wave and thought to be associated with concentration and memory formation in the hippocampus. Gamma waves have been found to be weaker in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Photo: YouTube/Emory Healthcare

The study went on for eight weeks, after which some participants, including Jackie, stuck around for an extension phase.

Researchers at Emory and Georgia Tech devised the study. Their non-pharmaceutical approach aims to slow Alzheimer’s disease progression by recording brain waves and stimulating brain cells with lights and sounds. Their goal is to prompt immune cells in the brain to consume more amyloid plaques, the accumulated proteins that many researchers believe are responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.

Photo: YouTube/Emory Healthcare

The results of the small study have shown that participants’ brain cells were stimulated by the lights and sounds as the researchers hoped and that there was an overall reduction in markers of inflammation. In such a short study, they were not able to see any reduction in plaques in the brain, but this is to be expected.

So at least in the short-term, the treatment appears to have a positive impact on neurodegeneration. It remains to be seen whether the treatment can have a long-term effect, however.

Photo: YouTube/Emory Healthcare

There isn’t a surefire cure to Alzheimer’s disease, nor are any of the current treatments for it effective long-term. However, even if the treatment trial she’s part of doesn’t improve her quality of life, Jackie knows she’s contributing to the betterment of the world for the people who will be in her shoes in the future.

“So far, this is very preliminary, and we’re nowhere close to drawing conclusions about the clinical benefit of this treatment,” says neurologist James Lah, who supervised the Flicker study at Emory Brain Health Center. “But we now have some very good arguments for a larger, longer study with more people.”

Photo: YouTube/Emory Healthcare

Annabelle Singer, an assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, helped develop the flicker treatment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She says the treatment still needs to be studied further to see not only its long-term effects but also the optimal way to use it. How long and how often the device should be worn remains a question for researchers. But now, at least, they know that participants will use the device.

“Adherence was one of our major concerns,” Singer says. “When we sent the device home with the participants, would they use it? Would they use it for a couple of days, and that would be it? We were pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t the case.”

Check out the video below to learn more about the treatment and Jackie’s positive attitude toward her condition and her contribution to science.

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