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Could Light-Based Alzheimer's Devices Be 'The Next Big Thing'?

Clarimedix's noninvasive, nondrug, light-based patch could treat Alzheimer's symptoms.

Not only is Alzheimer's disease (AD) the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, it is also the only one in the top 10 that can't be prevented, cured, or slowed, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Although treatments for the brain disease traditionally have been drug-based in the form of cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine, recent research indicates that AD symptoms may be alleviated through the use of light-based treatments. If further studies support these claims, could light-based AD treatments soon emerge as a lucrative new medical device market segment? Will light-based AD treatments be the 'next big thing?'

"Progress towards effective treatments for this horrible disease has been uneven at best," according to the Alzheimer's Association's Web site. Conventional drug treatments typically target beta amyloid, which is a peptide that is considered the main ingredient in disease-related plaques often found in AD patients' brains. Many experts believe, however, that this approach has not proven to be very effective.

Some researchers, however, have shifted their focus to exploring the notion that AD is caused by a deficiency of blood in the brain over time. Thus, various research projects are exploring ways to increase cerebral blood flow as a means of allaying AD symptoms. At the core of many of these endeavors has been the study of light's effect on blood flow.

Operating from this school of thought is Clarimedix Inc. (Boulder, CO), which recently presented its results from animal studies on a noninvasive, nondrug medical device that treats AD. The technology is based on a breakthrough at the University of Colorado in 2006 that revealed that mitochondrial cytochome c oxidase produced nitric oxide (NO) when subjected to certain oxygen conditions. This discovery led to the theory and subsequent demonstration that "light of an appropriate wavelength, intensity, and duration can be used to control the Cco/NO receptor-stimulating it or inhibiting it at will," according to Clarimedix's Web site.

This concept was applied to the development of a flexible patch that adheres to a patient's neck over the carotid artery. The patch then delivers light-based therapy to the patient and triggers targeted, localized, and controllable release of NO. In turn, NO will increase blood flow, reduce inflammation, and improve patients' memories, according to the company. The company is continuing its research in this area based on the animal studies.

In addition to Clarimedix's intriguing announcement, Boston-based researchers detailed in the journal Photomedicine and Laser Surgery two cases in which the application of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to the foreheads and scalps of patients with traumatic brain injury helped to improve cognitive function. Although these were cases of traumatic brain injury and not AD, light-based therapy was linked to a demonstrated improvement in memory, which could play into AD device development.

Furthermore, a UK researcher at the University of Sunderland made headlines a few years ago after conducting a study that found that infrared light exposure reversed memory loss in mice. This study prompted the creation of a helmet for AD patients that is worn 10 minutes a day and subjects them to low-level infrared light. The intended result is that the light stimulates cell growth and repair, which could slow the rate of decay or possibly even partially reverse it, according to the researchers.

Though the intention and design of these treatments differ, they all connect light therapy to improved memory. While these light-based therapies are not yet commercialized, they do show potential for an entirely new approach to treating AD that relies on devices rather than drugs. The implications could be enormous for both patients and the medical device industry.

There's no doubt that there is a lot of potential for AD treatment devices if these studies demonstrate efficacy in humans. There is, after all, a sizable patient population suffering from the disease and no drug that is considered truly effective. So, other options are obviously highly desired by patients and their caretakers. Having witnessed the effects of AD firsthand, I can say that the disease takes a definite toll on the caretakers, who are often family members, as well. Ultimately, only time will tell if light-based AD devices are on the horizon. But their potential impact is immeasurable.--Shana Leonard

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