LEDs could one day be the medicine that treats many of our more complicated diseases and illnesses. That future is still pretty distant, but more and more it seems that we are getting glimpses at it. Take, for example, recent research into one degenerative disease that has been confounding those in the scientific medical community for many decades: Alzheimer’s. A team of researchers at MIT recently have begun to discover mechanisms for manipulating brain waves called gamma oscillations, which, with the proper LED calibration, have shown the ability to stimulate cells known to combat the “plaque” that Alzheimer’s seems to be related to.
The study, which is extremely preliminary, was published in the December edition of Nature, and the work of the MIT lab itself was documented in a recent episode of the always scientifically-curious RadioLab podcast. And, although the understanding of the technique is limited, the findings were so surprising that they have drawn attention worldwide.
The process used by Li-Huei Tsai and her team at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory goes something like this; Alzheimer’s disease is marked by an overabundance of beta-amyloid plaque in the brain, which clog up brainwave paths (in theory, their exact mechanism is still a bit murky) and impair gamma oscillations brain waves. By stimulating these damaged gamma waves in the brains of mice using specific hertz of electricity, the revitalized brainwaves “cleaned up” the problematic amyloid plaques. They would do this naturally in the brain of a patient without Alzheimer’s.
Problem number one for Li-Huei Tsai’s team was that doing this, even in mice, was incredible invasive; they had to drill a microscope hole in order to get the laser light through into the brain. There needed to be a better (and safer) way of stimulating the gamma oscillation brainwaves externally. Here is where Tsai and her partner Emery Brown thought of an ingenious concept: using highly-calibrated LED lighting to achieve the same effect. The hole now, if you will, is basically the animal’s eyes as they absorb LED light waves. They found that specified LED calibration at 40 hertz in a flickering nature for one hour, achieved remarkable results in terms of gamma oscillation stimulation.
The question now, for both Tsai’s team and the rest of the medical community, is multi-fold. What is the best LED calibration to accomplish maximum helpful brainwave stimulation? How long do these effects last for? How much, exactly, will they help in terms of treating the symptoms of Alzheimer’s? It should be noted that the research here, just on gamma oscillation and amyloid plaques alone, was very promising before this LED concept. Finally, will this treatment, once refined, work on the human mind? Here’s to hoping the answer to all of these questions will be positive, and that LED technology will lead the way to a bold medical breakthrough.