Light Therapy And Alzheimer's Disease

  • Hima SaxenaMasters in Pharmacy, Uttarakhand Technical University, India
  • Saba AmberBSc (Hons) Medicinal and Biological Chemistry, Manchester Metropolitan University

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Introduction

Alzheimer's disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder, is characterised by cognitive decline, memory loss, and impaired daily functioning. It is the leading cause of dementia and poses a significant global health challenge. The prevalence of Alzheimer's is escalating with an ageing population, profoundly impacting individuals, families, and society at large.1 

Current treatment options provide limited relief from symptoms. This has led to researchers exploring new approaches, such as light therapy, to ease cognitive symptoms. Light therapy involves exposure to specific wavelengths of light, targeting the circadian rhythm and influencing brain function.2 Understanding the potential of light therapy can revolutionise how we approach Alzheimer's care, offering a unique and promising way to elevate the quality of life in affected individuals. In this article, we delve into the relationship between light therapy and Alzheimer's disease, exploring the scientific basis, potential mechanisms, and current research findings that shed light on this promising therapeutic approach.

Understanding Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer's disease is a neurological condition characterised by changes in the brain that lead to cognitive decline. The pathology of Alzheimer's involves two main components: beta-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.1 

Understanding these processes is crucial in the pursuit of effective treatments for Alzheimer's disease.

Beta-amyloid plaques

These are abnormal clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid that form outside brain cells. Think of them as disruptors, interfering with the communication between neurons. This disruption contributes to the breakdown of cognitive functions.3

Neurofibrillary tangles

Inside brain cells, there's a protein called tau. In Alzheimer's, tau  forms tangles that act  as obstacles within the neurons, hindering their normal functioning. As these tangles accumulate, it leads to further impairment of cognitive abilities.4

Neuronal damage 

The combined effect of beta-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles results in the death of nerve cells (neurons). This process disrupts the intricate network of communication in the brain, causing cognitive decline and memory loss.5

Inflammatory response

Beta-amyloid plaques trigger inflammation in the brain. While inflammation is a natural response, in Alzheimer's, it becomes chronic, contributing to ongoing damage to neurons.6

Brain atrophy

Over time, the cumulative impact of neuron loss and other changes leads to brain atrophy. This shrinkage, particularly in regions associated with memory and cognition, is a hallmark of Alzheimer's pathology.

Synaptic dysfunction

Communication between neurons occurs at synapses. In Alzheimer's, these communication points are disrupted, leading to difficulties in transmitting signals within the brain.7

Impaired neurotransmission

Alzheimer's also involves changes in the levels of neurotransmitters, like acetylcholine. These changes affect the ability of neurons to communicate effectively, compromising learning and memory functions.

The role of light in circadian rhythms

Circadian rhythms are natural, internal processes that regulate the sleep-wake cycle and repeat roughly every 24 hours. These rhythms are influenced by external factors such as light and darkness and are crucial for maintaining various physiological and behavioural functions. The term "circadian" is derived from the Latin words "circa" and "diem" meaning around a day.8

Circadian rhythms are found in most living organisms, from plants to animals, and are driven by an internal biological clock, often located in the brain. This internal clock helps synchronise various bodily functions, including hormone production, body temperature, and sleep-wake cycles, with the external environment.8

Light is a primary environmental cue that helps regulate circadian rhythms. The eyes contain specialized cells called photoreceptors, particularly the melanopsin-containing ganglion cells, that are sensitive to light. These cells send signals to the brain's suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which acts as the master clock, coordinating the body's internal clock with the external day-night cycle.9

Exposure to natural light during the day, especially in the morning, helps set and reinforce the body's circadian rhythm. Light exposure in the morning suppresses the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which helps individuals to feel alert and awake. Conversely, exposure to darkness, especially in the evening, signals the body to increase melatonin production, promoting sleep.9

The connection between circadian rhythm disruption and Alzheimer's progression

Emerging research suggests a connection between disrupted circadian rhythms and the progression of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's is a neurodegenerative disorder characterised by the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain, leading to cognitive decline.10

The sleep-wake cycle, which is tightly linked to circadian rhythms, plays a role in the clearance of beta-amyloid from the brain. During deep sleep, the glymphatic system, a waste clearance system in the brain, becomes more active, helping remove toxins, including beta-amyloid. Disrupted sleep and circadian rhythms may hinder this clearance process, potentially contributing to the accumulation of beta-amyloid in the brain.11

Moreover, individuals with Alzheimer's disease often experience disturbances in their sleep-wake cycles and may have altered circadian patterns. Disruptions in the sleep-wake cycle can exacerbate cognitive decline and behavioural symptoms in individuals with Alzheimer's.

Impact on sleep-wake cycles and circadian rhythm disruption 

  • Sleep disturbances: Individuals with Alzheimer's often experience disturbances in their sleep patterns. They may have difficulty falling asleep, wake up frequently during the night, or experience daytime sleepiness.
  • Circadian rhythm disruption: Alzheimer's can disrupt the body's circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. This disruption may lead to irregular sleep patterns, with patients being awake at night and drowsy during the day.10
  • Sundowning: Sundowning is a phenomenon where symptoms worsen in the late afternoon and evening. Patients may become more agitated, confused, and anxious during this time, affecting their ability to sleep at night.

Light therapy: An overview

Bright light therapy is a treatment that involves exposure to artificial light, usually in the form of a bright light box or lamp, to simulate natural sunlight.12 

  • Light therapy and the brain: Light therapy, particularly bright light therapy, can have significant effects on the brain, influencing various physiological and neurochemical processes. These effects are relevant not only in mood disorders but also in conditions like Alzheimer's disease.
  • Circadian rhythm regulation: Light is a crucial regulator of the circadian rhythms, the internal body clock that governs the sleep-wake cycle. Exposure to bright light, especially in the morning, helps synchronise circadian rhythms, promoting a more regular sleep pattern and maintaining optimal functioning of the body's internal clock.9
  • Melatonin production: Light exposure, especially in the morning, helps regulate the production of melatonin, a hormone that plays a key role in sleep regulation. Adequate exposure to light during the day can contribute to the suppression of melatonin in the evening, promoting wakefulness and alertness during daylight hours.13
  • Neurotransmitter modulation: Light therapy can influence neurotransmitter levels, including serotonin and dopamine, which play roles in mood regulation. It is thought that exposure to bright light increases serotonin levels, contributing to improved mood and well-being.

Implementing light therapy in Alzheimer's care

Implementing light therapy in Alzheimer's care requires an understanding of the potential benefits at different stages, the development of personalised plans, and seamless integration into existing care strategies. 

  • Early stage: Light therapy can help regulate the circadian rhythm, improving sleep-wake cycles and reducing sundowning effects. Exposure to bright light has shown the potential to improve cognitive function and mood in the early stages.9
  • Middle stage: Light therapy may assist in managing behavioural symptoms, such as agitation and aggression. Addressing sleep disturbances is crucial, and light therapy can contribute to better sleep patterns.
  • Late stage: Light therapy can serve as non-pharmacological sensory stimulation, enhancing the overall well-being of late-stage patients. Increasing exposure to bright light during daytime hours may help combat excessive daytime sleepiness.

Potential benefits of light therapy

Light therapy involves exposure to light to treat various conditions. Here are some of the potential benefits–

  • Treatment for sleep disorders: Light therapy has been used to regulate circadian rhythms and treat sleep disorders such as insomnia and delayed sleep phase syndrome.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): Light therapy is a common and effective treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that occurs at specific times of the year, often during the fall and winter when there is less natural sunlight.
  • Mood regulation: Light therapy has been linked to improvements in mood, particularly in individuals with mood disorders such as depression.
  • Cognitive performance: Exposure to bright light has been associated with enhanced cognitive performance, alertness, and attention.13

Side effects of light therapy

Here are some of the side effects of light therapy–

  • Headaches and eye strain: Prolonged exposure to bright light can cause headaches and eye strain in some individuals.14
  • Photosensitivity: Some people may be sensitive to light and experience discomfort or exacerbation of certain conditions.14
  • Insomnia: Light therapy, if not administered at the right time or duration, can disrupt sleep patterns and lead to insomnia.
  • Bipolar disorder: Individuals with bipolar disorder may experience episodes of mania or hypomania triggered by light therapy.

Summary

Light therapy emerges as a promising intervention in Alzheimer's care, addressing symptoms and improving the well-being of affected individuals. Research indicates that exposure to specific light wavelengths can positively influence disrupted circadian rhythms, sleep patterns, and mood commonly associated with Alzheimer's. The potential benefits extend to cognitive function, suggesting a role in managing cognitive decline. A compelling call to action urges further exploration through rigorous scientific investigations and large-scale clinical trials to determine optimal parameters and assess long-term efficacy and safety. Emphasising a holistic approach, combining light therapy with cognitive, physical, and social interventions, underscores the multifaceted nature of Alzheimer's treatment. The integration of these strategies holds the key to developing comprehensive and personalised care plans, contributing to a more effective and compassionate approach to addressing the complex challenges of Alzheimer's disease. Collaborative efforts among researchers, clinicians, and caregivers are essential in unlocking the full potential of light therapy in the realm of Alzheimer's care.

References

  1. Kumar A, Sidhu J, Goyal A, Tsao JW. Alzheimer Disease. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 [cited 2024 Feb 1]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499922/.
  2. Figueiro MG, Sahin L, Kalsher M, Plitnick B, Rea MS. Long-Term, All-Day Exposure to Circadian-Effective Light Improves Sleep, Mood, and Behavior in Persons with Dementia. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Reports [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 4(1):297–312. Available from: https://content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-alzheimers-disease-reports/adr200212.
  3. Sehar U, Rawat P, Reddy AP, Kopel J, Reddy PH. Amyloid Beta in Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. International Journal of Molecular Sciences [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 23(21):12924. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/23/21/12924.
  4. Metaxas A, Kempf SJ. Neurofibrillary tangles in Alzheimer’s disease: elucidation of the molecular mechanism by immunohistochemistry and tau protein phospho-proteomics. Neural Regen Res [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 11(10):1579–81. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5116834/.
  5. DeTure MA, Dickson DW. The neuropathological diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Molecular Neurodegeneration [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 14(1):32. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/s13024-019-0333-5.
  6. Novoa C, Salazar P, Cisternas P, Gherardelli C, Vera-Salazar R, Zolezzi JM, et al. Inflammation context in Alzheimer’s disease, a relationship intricate to define. Biological Research [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 55(1):39. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/s40659-022-00404-3.
  7. Martínez-Serra R, Alonso-Nanclares L, Cho K, Giese KP. Emerging insights into synapse dysregulation in Alzheimer’s disease. Brain Communications [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 4(2):fcac083. Available from: https://academic.oup.com/braincomms/article/doi/10.1093/braincomms/fcac083/6565187
  8. Vitaterna MH, Takahashi JS, Turek FW. Overview of Circadian Rhythms. Alcohol Res Health [Internet]. 2001 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 25(2):85–93. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6707128/.
  9. Blume C, Garbazza C, Spitschan M. Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep and mood. Somnologie (Berl) [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 23(3):147–56. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6751071/.
  10. Hoyt KR, Obrietan K. Circadian clocks, cognition, and Alzheimer’s disease: synaptic mechanisms, signaling effectors, and chronotherapeutics. Molecular Neurodegeneration [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 17(1):35. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/s13024-022-00537-9.
  11. Cordone S, Annarumma L, Rossini PM, De Gennaro L. Sleep and β-Amyloid Deposition in Alzheimer Disease: Insights on Mechanisms and Possible Innovative Treatments. Frontiers in Pharmacology [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 10. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2019.00695.
  12. Wang S, Zhang Z, Yao L, Ding N, Jiang L, Wu Y. Bright light therapy in the treatment of patients with bipolar disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLOS ONE [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 15(5):e0232798. Available from: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0232798.
  13. Liu C-R, Liou YM, Jou J-H. Pilot Study of the Effects of Bright Ambient Therapy on Dementia Symptoms and Cognitive Function. Frontiers in Psychology [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 12. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.782160.
  14. Campbell PD, Miller AM, Woesner ME. Bright Light Therapy: Seasonal Affective Disorder and Beyond. Einstein J Biol Med [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 32:E13–25. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6746555/.

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Hima Saxena

Masters in Pharmacy - M.Pharm, Uttarakhand Technical University, India

Hima Saxena is a dedicated professional with a Master's degree in Pharmacy, who possesses a profound passion for medical science and its effective communication. Her articles adeptly blend pharmaceutical knowledge with writing skills, ensuring readers gain a comprehensive understanding of crucial medical topics. Her experience in writing and editing further strengthens her commitment to providing informative, precise, and easily accessible information. Hima is eager to leverage her knowledge and communication skills to enhance health awareness and knowledge through her writing.

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