Sleep Treatments | Sleep Review
Despite decades of research into high-tech drugs, diets, and crossword puzzles, scientists have yet to come up with a highly effective treatment for patients. Recently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine on Mount Sinai with a five-year scholarship to try something new: light. With this award, the researchers will test whether the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s are slowed when patients are exposed to a combination of light therapies. One therapy uses pulses of light that are designed to improve the perception of enhancing electrical brain waves, while the other is aimed at helping patients get better sleep. The project will receive $ 792,000 for the first year.
“Light can be a powerful but often overlooked health factor,” says Mariana Figueiro, PhD, director of the Light Health Research Center (LHRC) and professor of population health science and policy at Icahn Mount Sinai and recipient of the NIH-funded National Institute on Fellowship Aging, in a press release. “We hope to harness the power of light to alleviate the suffering that millions of Alzheimer’s patients and their loved ones experience every day.”
Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are neurodegenerative diseases that primarily damage the memory centers of the brain, the temporal lobes, and the hippocampus. Typical symptoms occur in people over the age of 65. These include thinking and memory problems, mood swings, and confusion. As the disease progresses, symptoms worsen to the point where a patient requires full-time care. Recently, several lines of research from Figueiro’s laboratory and others have suggested the idea that light can be an effective tool in combating these problems.
In this project, the LHRC team wants to test whether flashing light pulses at a frequency of 40 times per second or 40 Hz not only increase “gamma” waves of electrical activity in patients’ brains, but also increase some of the problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease -Illness. The team will also investigate whether combining the 40 Hz flashes with light therapy, which is designed to reset a patient’s sleep-wake rhythm, can also help.
Figueiro is part of a research team on Mount Sinai that is focused on understanding in detail how light controls our health. For example, the team has spent years developing light therapies to help nurses overcome fatigue and other negative effects of working overnight in dimly lit environments.
“One of the difficulties of modern times is that we have deprived ourselves of the daily doses of natural light we need for a healthy lifestyle,” said Mark S. Rea, PhD, LHRC Assistant Director, in a press release.
The trial will begin with dozens of Mount Sinai patients diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment, a condition that often precedes Alzheimer’s disease. The light pulses are emitted by a device specially developed at the LHRC, such as a box or protective goggles. The results are compared with those of age-adjusted controls.
Gamma brainwave activity has been linked to learning and memory. Human studies have shown that activity is reduced in Alzheimer’s patients. Meanwhile, studies in mice engineered to mimic certain aspects of the disease showed that 40 Hz flashing light increased gamma activity while reducing neuronal cell death and the accumulation of amyloid beta, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
To test the role of sleep-wake cycles in this process, the team will expose patients to high doses of daylight on a daily basis to help patients sleep better.
About 40% of Alzheimer’s patients experience sleep problems, including restlessness and daytime sleepiness. Studies testing light therapy to treat these symptoms have shown mixed results so far.
For this study, the sleep-wake cycle light is provided either by the same purpose-built device used for flashing or another such as a table or lamp that allows for well-defined periods of constant daily exposure. The effectiveness in combating sleep and cognitive problems related to Alzheimer’s disease is tested alone and in combination with the 40 Hz pulses.
“Our sleep-wake cycle plays a crucial role in brain health,” says Figueiro. “Through a rigorous, two-pronged approach to light therapy, it is possible that we can bring the brains of Alzheimer’s patients into a healthier state.”
Photo above: Researchers at the Light Health Research Center (LHRC) on Mount Sinai are constantly developing new devices to deliver healthy doses of light to patients. Here are some blue light glasses designed to help improve sleep. As part of an NIH-funded project, the LHRC will develop and test whether a new device to improve sleep and cognition will help combat the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Photo credit: Courtesy of Figueiro Laboratory, Mount Sinai, NY, NY