Sometimes, the most complex problems have the simplest solutions. The problem faced this round? Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s has been puzzling the medical researchers for the past several decades. Yet, in the past five years, some simple approaches are showing great promise. Thanks to new Alzheimer’s research, patients may have new treatments to choose from in the near future: light therapy and cannabis. But, will Alzheimer’s soon be treated with light and THC?
Where’s the gamma?
The brain is electric. By some estimates, the organ can generate 10 watts of power. Doctors and medical researchers measure the brain’s electrical activity in the form of brainwaves.
Just as the sun transmits certain waves of solar energy to plants, the electricity in the brain pulses at different amplitudes.
For the first time, researchers from the Massachusetts Institue of Technology (MIT) Brain Institute found that altering these brainwaves may treat Alzheimer’s Disease. The groundbreaking study was published December 7 in Nature.
Most Alzheimer’s research focuses on genetic and biochemical factors. Thus far, one of the primary aims of Alzheimer’s research is to figure out how to prevent or reverse the buildup of amyloid plaques, neurotoxic proteins that build up in the brain and prevents brain cells from functioning properly.
MIT professor Dr. Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, decided to approach the disease from a new light. For a while now, researchers have known that Alzheimer’s patients produce less of a certain brainwave frequency called gamma.
The gamma frequency is necessary for complex tasks like working memory, attention, and navigation. It beats between 30 and 100 times per second. To perform these functions, groups of brain cells (neurons) communicate with each other using the gamma frequency.
In Alzheimer’s patients, the gamma frequency is muffled slightly. So, Tsai and her team decided to turn up the volume.
Mice, lights, and brainwaves
Unfortunately, Tsai’s research was conducted in mice, not humans. While mice are often used as pre-clinical models in treatment development, therapies using mice as models for AD have been particularly unsuccessful in humans. However, the results of this study were unexpected and eye-opening.
To boost the volume of gamma waves, the researchers shined a LED light onto the brains of mice with early-stage Alzheimer’s. The mice had elevated levels of amyloid proteins and reduced gamma frequency. The light flickered at a rate of 40 beats per second, mimicking the frequency of gamma waves.
The amazing thing?
After an hour-long light therapy session, amyloid proteins decreased by nearly 50%. How?
The gamma frequency seemed to stimulate the brain’s clean up system. After treatment, there were more microglia cells, the custodians of the brain, eating and cleaning up amyloids.
Tsai tells WNYC’s Radiolab,
After one hour of gamma, the microglia cell seems a lot bigger. […] and also, the belly seems to have more amyloid. […] They go back to eat the amyloid again.
Shining a light directly onto the brain is difficult and invasive. For their first experiment, the MIT team had to drill a hole through the skull of the mice they were trying to treat.
This is not practical for future human application, so the team decided to try something else.
In their next experiment, they simply put the mice in a jerry-rigged lightroom and shined LED lights into their eyes for one hour at gamma frequency. Much to their surprise, they got the same results.
The mice had a 50% reduction in amyloid-beta. All from looking at flickering lights.
What about THC?
By simply using light to manipulate electrical frequencies, Tsai and her team may have just discovered a promising therapeutic approach to Alzheimer’s treatment in humans.
Their hope is to continue to explore gamma treatments that can eventually produce long-lasting results in humans.
But, the MIT team still has a long way to go.
In the meantime, recent research into medical cannabis for Alzheimer’s is also showing promising results. In a pre-clinical study published earlier this year , a team at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies treated human nerve cells with psychoactive THC. The nerve cells were cultured outside of the body.
The Salk team found that THC successfully reduced levels of amyloid-beta and eased neuroinflammation. These two properties lead the study authors to conclude that THC, and other cannabinoids, may be a potent neuroprotective treatment in Alzheimer’s.
Lead study author David Schubert explains,
Although other studies have offered evidence that cannabinoids might be neuroprotective against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, we believe our study is the first to demonstrate that cannabinoids affect both inflammation and amyloid beta accumulation in nerve cells.
Coupled with the cannabinoid’s ability to reduce amyloid proteins, the research available thus far indicates that the cannabis plant may be useful in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions.
Though these studies are pre-clinical and have yet to be put to the test in humans, it is comforting to know that some of the most promising interventions in Alzheimer’s have such humble origins: light and a herb.
For more information on medical cannabis for the aging brain, read the article here.