LED Lights May Be a Promising New Alzheimer’s Treatment, MIT Study Says

Mouse trials looked successful, and human tests are up next.

Li-Huei Tsai

Li-Huei Tsai/Photo by Bryce Vickmark

A new study from MIT may shed light—literally—on Alzheimer’s treatment.

The research, led by MIT neuroscience professor Li-Huei Tsai and published Wednesday in Nature, suggests that exposing patients to LED lights flashing at a specific frequency may be a highly effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

“This, basically, is the first indication that one can do something extremely non-invasive,” Tsai explains. “This doesn’t involve a chemical, an antibody, electrodes, any kind of electrical or magnetic stimulation. All we need to do is some sensory stimulation, such as shining lights, and it can have very dramatic effects.”

In mouse trials, measured exposure to LED lights significantly reduced the buildup of amyloid plaques, beta-amyloid protein deposits that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease, in the brain’s visual cortex. After the treatment, fewer beta-amyloid proteins were produced, and the animals’ immune cells were able to more effectively clear the proteins from the brain. Levels of tau protein, which causes tangles in the brain that are also implicated in Alzheimer’s development, were lower as well.

The team initially achieved a similar result using optogenetics, a method of controlling genetically modified neurons with light. LED lights, however, offer a far less invasive treatment option, making them better suited for human use, Tsai says.

But how can lights do all that?

Tsai says the LED lights catalyze the formation of brain waves called gamma oscillations, which are associated with memory, attention, and perception. These brain waves are lacking in both human Alzheimer’s patients and in mice genetically engineered to develop the disease. Coaxing the brain to produce gamma oscillations, then, could play an important role in reversing the condition’s course.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that what worked in mice will work in humans. Still, Tsai is clearly encouraged by the study’s results.

“That’s the question, whether humans will respond similarly to this kind of treatment,” she says. “If humans do, then we want to know whether the beta-amyloid in the human brain can be similarly reduced. If the two things happen, then I think this is going to be very, very exciting.”

Hopefully, we’ll know sooner rather than later whether humans do, indeed, respond. Tsai and her colleague Ed Boyden, a professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at the MIT Media Lab and an author of the new study, founded a company called Cognito Therapeutics, which is working toward similar tests in people.

If the cohort succeeds, Tsai says, “the possibility is enormous.” If human trials prove fruitful, she envisions a world where patients equipped with the correct LED lights and specific instructions from a doctor—Tsai stresses that the LED lights must flicker at precisely the right frequency to have any positive effect at all—could administer their own Alzheimer’s treatment at home.

“I certainly can think of a possibility that people can administer this to themselves at home, and also we are trying in other kinds of sensory stimulations,” Tsai says. “There are a lot of very exciting possibilities.”

Curious? Check out this video from MIT: