Radiation treatment is generally thought of as being for cancer patients, but a recent pilot study shows that it may actually be effective in alleviating the symptoms of severe Alzheimer’s disease as well. There’s still more research to be done, but here’s what we know right now about this experimental treatment.
Of course, improving the quality of a person’s life is the ultimate goal of this type of treatment. It’s not capable of reversing or stopping Alzheimer’s disease; it can only mitigate the symptoms and help the person have a better life in their final days. Therefore, high-dose radiation and all the side effects that can come with it won’t really do. In fact, high-dose radiation can even cause issues like DNA damage, cancer, and brain damage from oxidative stress.
Luckily, however, researchers have discovered that a lower dose of radiation, which is much less likely to cause side effects and health issues, may be effective for Alzheimer’s patients with severe symptoms.
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“The primary goal of a therapy for old[er] adults with AD should be to improve the quality of their lives by optimizing their well-being, staying brain health[y], and restoring communication with family and friends to avoid social isolation, loneliness, and under-stimulation,” the study states.
The pilot study, conducted by researchers at the Baycrest and Sunnybrook Health Centres in Toronto, Canada, along with Cuttler & Associates in Vaughan, Canada, showed that radiation doses as low as those administered during a CT scan could improve patients’ quality of life. They were copying a similar case study from 2015 that showed a patient with severe AD displaying significant signs of improvement in their cognitive abilities, speech, and movement after receiving low doses of radiation. The patient in question was even able to transfer out of hospice care and into a care home after the treatment.
The researchers, including Dr. Sean Symons of Sunnybrook Research Institute and colleagues, theorized that low doses of radiation caused a small amount of damage to molecules in the brain, which stimulated a cellular protective response involving antioxidant production and damage repair. So they set out to test the theory on more patients like the one in the case study.
The study involved four participants between the ages of 81 and 90 years, all of whom had severe Alzheimer’s disease. Each one received three low-dose radiation treatments two weeks apart by means of a CT brain scan. The first treatment consisted of two scans totaling 80 milligrays (mGy) of radiation, while the next two treatments were each 40 mGy.
The researchers analyzed the patients’ cognitive, behavioral, and functional abilities before and after treatment. They also took note of observations and reported interactions with family members and caretakers to help determine whether the patients’ quality of life had changed.
What they discovered was that the quantitative measures they used resulted in only minor differences in alertness, awareness, and recognition. More qualitative measures, however, provided more significant results. For three out of four participants, family members and caregivers stated that they’d noticed better alertness, awareness of surroundings, and recognition within a day of the first treatment.
One of the participants was reportedly even able “to get into his wheelchair easily and put his feet on the foot-rests when asked to do so. At a concert, he sang to the rhythm and applauded appropriately.”
Another participant’s family said, “He was excited to see me — he spoke to me right away and gave me multiple kisses — real kisses like years ago. He was clapping his hands to the music. My mom agreed [it’d] been years since he has done this.”
One of the patients, however, reportedly showed no change or improvement in either qualitative or quantitative measures. But it should be noted that this patient also showed no evidence of worsened conditions or side effects after treatment.
Of course, there are still risks involved in any radiation treatment. Dr. Symons explains below how these risks are greater in younger patients and in patients who may be undergoing these treatments for a long period of time.
“In patients of this age, all greater than 80 years old, the long-term effects of radiation (such as radiation-induced cancers) are negligible,” Dr. Symons says. “However, if [we propose] ongoing treatment or treatment in younger patients with AD, then an assessment of the cumulative higher radiation dose and its risks would have to be balanced with the benefits of the treatment.”
The study was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Further work will be needed to determine the optimal range of radiation efficacy, optimal dose and interval, effective measures of oxidative stress, and more. Follow-up with larger clinical trials will be needed before this treatment is offered to the general public.Whizzco