If you know the basics of Alzheimer’s disease, you can see how promising this direction of research sounds. Alzheimer’s disease, at least in part, as far as we understand, is caused by the buildup of amyloid protein in the brain, which disrupts the communication between the neurons, and contributes to progressive cognitive decline. What if we could engineer an antibody specifically designed to attack and help clear away amyloid plaques? These new mabs targeted precisely to the beta-amyloid, seemed like a promising possibility for the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
But recently, clinical tests of these experimental drugs yielded disappointing results. Solanezumab and gantenerumab failed to slow down cognitive decline in 52 patients who received the experimental drugs by infusion or injection. Aducanumab’s efficacy was declared unpersuasive by a federal panel of medical experts, an advisory group for the Food and Drug Administration. More and more, the use of monoclonal antibodies targeting beta-amyloid depositions for treating Alzheimer’s disease is beginning to look like a dead end.
Where do we go from here? Do these recent failures mean we should discard the idea that the body’s own immune system could be recruited to treat Alzheimer’s? I am here to suggest that while researchers continue to seek drug-based therapies for cognitive decline, the idea of harnessing the body’s own defenses is still our best hope, and what is needed is not a completely new start—just a feasible, attainable correction.
A new flicker of hope on the horizon that’s growing steadily stronger as it accumulates more and more research is the surprising efficacy of 40HZ lights, which appear to activate and mobilize the brain’s own defensive system against the toxic buildup: specialized immune cells called microglia. There is a growing body of data supporting the notion of the pivotal role of microglia in neurodegenerative diseases. Even more recent research has discovered, in great detail, the mechanism of this effect. Lights that flicker at a rate of 40 times per second, mimicking the natural oscillations of the neurons in the brain, have been shown to modulate microglial response, increase the production of cytokines, and facilitate the clearing away the beta-amyloid plaque in animal experiment.
The extraordinary beauty of this new therapy is that it’s noninvasive. Unlike most new treatments, which are risky, the 40HZ light is a safe, passive therapy available to anyone who wants to try it. There’s no way to overemphasize the uniqueness of this opportunity. Medical research moves very slowly, and today’s exciting headline about a new drug for Alzheimer’s correlates, at best, to a treatment that’s many years away. The flickering lights, on the other hand, offer a bridge between hope for the future and hope for someone I love right now.