damaged amyloid plaque in brain cells image
(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Scientists are trying to take advantage of the brain’s ability to clean itself during sleep cycles, and new research on light therapy suggests it could aid in this process and help treat disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. 

Treating Alzheimer’s, or stopping its onset altogether, is a major goal within healthcare, as the number of older adults with the disease has soared to just under 7 million in the US alone.

Between 30% and 40% of all people living with dementia in the US reside in nursing homes, and 70% of people living with dementia will die in a nursing home, one study from Harvard showed. Forty-two percent of assisted living residents have dementia diagnoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The growing prevalence of the disease led the Alzheimer’s Association to warn of an “Alzheimer’s crisis” earlier this year.

Many recent studies on Alzheimer’s have linked poor sleep, or sleeping disorders, to higher risk for the disease. 

One of the reasons is that a toxic protein, beta-amyloid 42, is normally removed from the brain during sleep, and concurrently, its build-up within the brain causes Alzheimer’s.

The use of a specific kind of low-level infrared light therapy labeled photobiomodulation technology — PBM, for short — successfully stimulated faster removal of beta-amyloid in mice with Alzheimer’s, a recent study showed, a “very promising” result for future, human therapies. 

One summary of the report described the process as turning the brain into a “washing machine” during sleep to clean out the Alzheimer’s-related toxins. 

“The better effects of PBM on the brain lymphatics in [the] sleeping brain open a new niche in the study of restorative functions of sleep,” the researchers state.  “It [our study] is an important informative platform for the development of innovative technologies of smart sleep for therapy of Alzheimer’s.”

The therapy also could be used for treating other brain diseases that affect seniors, such as Parkinson’s or traumatic brain injury, the researchers note.