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Latest in health: Brain rhythms reveal possible treatment for Alzheimer's, similar diseases

Alzheimer’s disease currently afflicts 5.7 million Americans, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. That fact has led researchers in Massachusetts to discover non-invasive treatments for it and other neurodegenerative conditions.

Dr. Diane Chan is a neurologist helping to lead research at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on brain rhythms and how they can be studied and stimulated to counteract the effects of neurological diseases.

According to Chan, when brain cells fire in groups, this causes oscillations that can be captured on an electroencephalogram as brain rhythms. The most important rhythms for her research are gamma rhythms, which are important for higher-order brain function like memory and spatial navigation.

“The way the brain works is that different parts of the brain might have to talk to other parts of the brain in order for it to function correctly,” Chan said. “Our lab…[is] interested in developing new ways to look at human disease.”

Chan said her team looks at how the whole system of the brain works together, rather than just in the brain’s anatomy. In patients with Alzheimer’s disease, there is a breakdown in communication between some of the circuits in the brain, particularly due to the decrease in gamma rhythms. Because of this, Chan said she is developing new technology to get the brain to increase its gamma power.

In the mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease, Chan’s team shined flickering lights at them at different hertz, resulting in an increase of the electrical activity of the brain at that same level. In other words, by shining a light at a certain pulse level, that can stimulate rhythms of the same oscillation, which Chan calls non-invasive light therapy.

“We’re hoping that, by just shining light at patients of human Alzheimer’s disease, we’ll be able to change the course of how this disease deprives people of their memory and also decrease some of their pathology in their brain,” Chan said.

The same concept can be applied to other senses to stimulate different parts of the brain and treat other neurodegenerative conditions, Chan said.

“By affecting other parts of the brain with these other modalities, I think that we can use different things, such as tactile stimulation to help people with Parkinson’s disease,” Chan said. “We have evidence that these therapies can be very helpful, and so, maybe this is the new frontier for how we develop therapy for the future.”

Right now, there is no known agent that can delay, prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease and many other neurodegenerative diseases, but Chan is hoping her research can lead to a treatment, albeit not a permanent cure.

“We’re very excited that maybe we can create a non-invasive way of treating these diseases to improve brain health and possibly reverse the devastating memory loss that Alzheimer’s disease causes,” Chan said.