A new headset aims to treat Alzheimer's with light and sound

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The company's study involved 74 participants with mild to moderate Alzheimer's who received either Cognito stimulation or a sham device that served as a placebo. The subjects were asked to use the headset for an hour every day for six months.

Compared with the placebo group, those who received Cognito Stimulation saw a 77 percent reduction in functional decline, measured by a scale that assesses how well Alzheimer's patients perform daily activities such as eating, dressing, and moving around. How well you are able to perform activities.

The treatment group saw a 76 percent reduction in cognitive difficulties compared with placebo, as measured by a test that evaluates orientation, memory and attention as well as verbal and written ability.

Interestingly, the treatment arm had a 69 percent reduction in brain atrophy, or shrinkage, as measured by MRI, compared to the sham group. In Alzheimer's, as connections between networks of neurons break down, parts of the brain begin to shrink.

“By doing this for an hour a day, we produced these lasting biological changes,” says Kern. He compares wearing this device once a day to doing regular physical exercise – a way of training the brain. The downside is that people have to remain still while wearing the device and may be unable to sleep. In Cognito's study, 85 percent of participants were able to use the device consistently.

Cognito's approach is based on the research of MIT neuroscientist Lee-Huei Tsai, who founded the company with Ed Boyden, another MIT professor. Previously, they had found that stimulating mice with light and sound at 40 Hz made them perform better on memory tasks and also reduce levels of amyloid – a protein that deposits in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease. And forms plaque. A new paper in the journal Nature Tsai, Boyden and their colleagues report that it may do this by activating waste-disposal mechanisms in the mice's brain.

Accumulation of amyloid has long been the leading theory to explain Alzheimer's. But in Cognito's trial, researchers did not find a reduction in amyloid plaques in participants' brain scans. However, the Cognito trial used a type of brain imaging called positron emission tomography, or PET, which detects dense amyloid plaques. In the MIT team's new study, Tsai and her colleagues found that stimulation clears a more diffuse type of amyloid that spreads throughout the brain and is not detected by PET scans. She says it's possible that the stimulation in the Cognito trial may have had an effect on this type of amyloid, but the company's current study was not designed to measure this.

Christopher Weber, director of global science initiatives at the Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association, is encouraged by the safety of the Cognito device, but says the study size was too small to properly test efficacy.

“Research in this area is still in its early stages, and more studies with larger, diverse groups are needed to fully understand the relationship between gamma wave activity and Alzheimer's, especially whether gamma wave activity can be restored. “Doing or increasing exercise may have therapeutic benefits,” says Weber.