Flipping a light switch could be a new weapon in the fight against Alzheimer’s

Researchers at the University of Virginia said light therapy may be a new tool to help manage early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Doctors at the university stumbled upon the discovery while analyzing sleep patterns in mice with the memory-loss illness. The findings suggest that enhanced light sensitivity may contribute to “sundowning” — the worsening of symptoms late in the day — and could possibly spur sleep disruptions that are thought to speed up the disease in patients.

“They will often be sleepier during the day, and they will have a harder time staying asleep at night,” said Dr. Heather Ferris, an assistant professor at UVA, who led the research team.

“Sometimes in the afternoon and early evening, they get really frustrated and are less able to problem-solve,” Ferris said. “These symptoms build over time as the disease gets worse.”

These erratic sleep patterns disrupt the natural biological clock, also called circadian rhythm, and curb the body’s ability to get rid of proteins that are thought to form harmful tangles in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

A possible solution: Light therapy, a treatment that uses artificial light in various wavelengths and across different times to improve patient health.

“It made a lot of sense all of a sudden,” Ferris said. “This was exciting to us because it opens up so many doors for therapeutics. It’s easy, economical and safe. We can get to therapy much faster than a pill.”

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