Treatment hope for dementia patients
TWO North-East medics believe they have discovered a way to reverse the effects of dementia in a breakthrough that could offer new hope for thousands of sufferers.
The discovery could also save the NHS millions of pounds in caring for patients who can no longer look after themselves.
It could mean that one of the most feared medical conditions, affecting hundreds of thousands of Britons, could one day be treated by exposure to harmless infra-red light beams.
It is hoped this could provide doctors with a way of slowing down and rolling back the advance of dementia.
There are even suggestions that the same light therapy might be used to treat infections such as viral meningitis or encephalitis.
The inventor – County Durham GP Dr Gordon Dougal – was hugely encouraged when he used a prototype light device to reverse his father-in-law’s dementia.
“He had early signs of dementia. It worked for him. He is slowly getting worse again, but he is still better than how he was and it has given him nine extra years,” said Dr Dougal last night.
Small-scale tests have already been carried out.
When nine dementia patients at the Friarage Hospital, in Northallerton, were given infra-red light therapy, doctors noted measurable improvements to their cognitive behaviour and social skills.
The announcement of the breakthrough follows the publication of research into the doctor’s work by Sunderland University scientists, who confirmed that regular exposure to safe infra-red light can improve learning performance and brain function of mice.
As part of the study, groups of young and middle-aged mice were observed moving through a maze.
Regular exposure to a selected wavelength of infra-red light appeared to have a significant beneficial effects on the memory of the middle-aged mice, allowing them to equal the performance of younger mice in finding their way through the maze.
Dr Dougal, who works in Easington and has been looking at the potential benefits of light therapy for years, said: “The implications of this research are enormous.”
He said ten minutes of exposure to the infra-red light daily would have the desired effect on the brain, adding: “Currently, all you can do with dementia is to slow down the rate of decay – this new process will not only stop that rate of decay but partially reverse it.”
Dr Dougal, whose business partner is Darlington Memorial Hospital eye surgeon Jim Haslam, first realised that light therapy could have a healing effect on human tissue when he used a prototype device to clear up cold sores.
Now known as a Virulite, the hand-held battery operated gadget has been bought by more than 20,000 people around the world and is available on the NHS.
Clinical trials of the Virulite cold sore machine have shown better results than any other anti-viral medication.
Three years ago, researchers at Sunderland University confirmed that infra-red light with a wavelength of 10.72 nanometers had a measurable, positive effect on human immune cells, also known as lymphocytes.
A second light therapy device now commercially available and known as the Restorelite was also developed by the two medics to smooth wrinkles around the eyes.
A few weeks ago, The Northern Echo exclusively reported that another study, carried out by researchers from Sunderland University, showed that a significant majority of 79 volunteers who used the Restorelite device felt that it had smoothed wrinkles and had improved their appearance.
The North-East medics believe that early stage dementia patients should see an improvement in their brain function within four weeks, by wearing a lightweight helmet incorporating infra-red light-emitting diodes for ten minutes a day. Further human testing of the treatment is due to start in the summer.
Dr Dougal speculated that light therapy could one day be used to change the rate at which bodies age.
Dr Susanne Sorensen, head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “A treatment that reverses the effects of dementia rather than just temporarily halting its symptoms could change the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who live with this devastating condition.
“(It) is a potentially interesting technique.
“We look forward to further research to determine whether it could help improve cognition in humans. Only then can we begin to investigate whether near infrared could benefit people with dementia.”