Demystifying Dementia: Hope and New Approaches on the Horizon

Demystifying Dementia: Hope and New Approaches on the Horizon

Dementia, a condition often shrouded in fear and misunderstanding, affects millions globally. While there's currently no cure for dementia, significant advancements offer hope for the future. 

This blog post dives into the complexities of dementia, explores the potential of a new technology called photobiomodulation (PBM), and highlights the importance of early diagnosis and support.


Understanding Dementia: More Than Just Memory Loss

Dementia is not simply a matter of forgetfulness. It's an umbrella term for a group of conditions that cause a progressive decline in cognitive function, meaning a person's ability to think, reason, and remember things. While memory loss is a common symptom of dementia, it's definitely not the only symptom. Changes in behavior, communication, and reasoning abilities can also occur.

As people live longer, the number of dementia cases is expected to rise dramatically worldwide, with researchers suggesting that the number of people living with dementia is set to increase from an estimated 57 million in 2019 to 153 million by 2050 [1]. In the US, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) affects currently 5.8 million people [7]. This poses a significant challenge for healthcare systems around the globe, requiring collective attention and investment in research and support services.

Women, in particular, are disproportionately affected by dementia [1]. In fact, around twice as many women have Alzheimer's disease – the most common type of dementia – compared to men. According to Alzheimer's Society (2024), this can be explained by the fact that women live longer than men and old age is the biggest risk factor for this disease.

In this blog article, the Alzheimer’s Society explains more about the difference between women and men, mentioning that the ApoE4 gene, a known risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, is present in nearly two-thirds of people diagnosed with the condition. While both men and women can inherit the ApoE4 gene variant, its influence on developing dementia appears to be more pronounced in women compared to men. Researchers are still investigating the reasons behind this gender disparity.

It's important to understand that dementia is not an inevitable part of aging. Although age is a risk factor, many people live long and fulfilling lives without developing dementia. Early diagnosis, however, can make a significant difference. By getting an early diagnosis, individuals can make informed decisions about their future and access support systems that can help them manage the condition.

A New Hope: Photobiomodulation (PBM) Therapy

Emerging research suggests a new ray of hope: photobiomodulation (PBM) therapy. PBM uses light therapy to stimulate cells and tissues, and it may have a positive impact on cognitive function in individuals with dementia.
While the exact mechanisms are still under investigation, here are some potential ways PBM might benefit the brain, according to science [2]:
  • Improved energy production: Photobiomodulation (PBM) may enhance the brain's ability to produce ATP, a molecule crucial for cellular energy. This could be especially helpful in cases where dementia disrupts mitochondrial function, the powerhouses of our cells;
  • Enhanced blood flow: Studies suggest PBM can improve blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, potentially aiding in better brain function;
  • Cellular protection: Photobiomodulation might offer neuroprotective benefits, helping brain cells survive and resist damage associated with dementia. This includes reducing oxidative stress, a significant factor in brain degeneration;
  • Anti-inflammatory effects: Photobiomodulation may help regulate inflammation, a key player in various neurodegenerative diseases;
  • Promoting new connections: Early research suggests that PBM might even stimulate the growth of new brain cells and connections, which could be crucial for improving cognitive function.

Early Signs of Promise: Clinical Trials of PBM in Alzheimer's Disease (AD) and Dementia

Photobiomodulation (PBM) therapy is emerging as a potential approach for managing dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Here's a look at some key clinical trials exploring its effectiveness:
  • Saltmarche et al. (2017) [3] investigated the effects of transcranial and intranasal PBM (tPBM) in a small case series of five dementia patients. The treatment resulted in significant improvements in cognitive function (MMSE, ADAS-Cog), sleep quality, and reduced behavioral issues after 12 weeks;
  • Chao et al. (2019) [4] conducted a pilot trial evaluating a home-based PBM device in eight dementia patients. Compared to the control group, the PBM group showed improvements in cognitive function (ADAS-Cog), behavioral symptoms (NPI), cerebral blood flow, and functional connectivity within the brain's default mode network after 12 weeks;
  • A 2018 study [5] conducted a small double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with 11 dementia subjects. Treatment with transcranial NIR-PBM (1060-1080 nm) using a helmet for 28 consecutive sessions led to improvements in executive function, memory, and visual attention tasks;
  • Researchers in Russia conducted a larger study in 2016 [6], exploring intravascular PBM for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). They delivered laser light directly into the brains of patients, observing improvements in cerebral blood flow, dementia symptoms, and cognitive function compared to a medication-receiving control group.

Living Well with Dementia: Taking Control

Taking an active role in your health can potentially delay the onset and progression of dementia. Maintaining physical activity, healthy eating habits, and mental stimulation are all important aspects of a healthy lifestyle for brain health.

Early diagnosis is crucial, as it unlocks access to valuable support systems. These systems empower individuals and their families to navigate life with dementia and make informed decisions about care.

Combating the stigma surrounding dementia is also essential. Open conversations and education can help to improve the quality of life for individuals living with dementia by fostering understanding and support.

According to Arvanitakis, Z. et al. (2019) [7], “management should include both non-pharmacologic approaches with cognitive, physical, and social activities, and pharmacologic approaches such as with an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor for AD, although the efficacy of treatments remains limited.”


The Future of Dementia Care

Photobiomodulation therapy (PBM) shows promise for managing Alzheimer's disease (AD) and dementia. Its safety profile and diverse positive effects on the brain warrant further investigation through large-scale, controlled clinical trials.

At the same time, home-based photobiomodulation devices offer a convenient option for caregivers, who often report experiencing improved quality of life themselves while caring for individuals undergoing photobiomodulation therapy [2].

  1. Estimation of the global prevalence of dementia in 2019 and forecasted prevalence in 2050: an analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. GBD 2019 Dementia Forecasting Collaborators.

  2. Hamblin M. R. (2019). Photobiomodulation for Alzheimer's Disease: Has the Light Dawned?. Photonics, 6(3), 77.

  3. Saltmarche, A. E., Naeser, M. A., Ho, K. F., Hamblin, M. R., & Lim, L. (2017). Significant Improvement in Cognition in Mild to Moderately Severe Dementia Cases Treated with Transcranial Plus Intranasal Photobiomodulation: Case Series Report. Photomedicine and laser surgery, 35(8), 432–441.

  4. Chao L. L. (2019). Effects of Home Photobiomodulation Treatments on Cognitive and Behavioral Function, Cerebral Perfusion, and Resting-State Functional Connectivity in Patients with Dementia: A Pilot Trial. Photobiomodulation, photomedicine, and laser surgery, 37(3), 133–141.

  5. Berman, M. H., Halper, J. P., Nichols, T. W., Jarrett, H., Lundy, A., & Huang, J. H. (2017). Photobiomodulation with Near Infrared Light Helmet in a Pilot, Placebo Controlled Clinical Trial in Dementia Patients Testing Memory and Cognition. Journal of neurology and neuroscience, 8(1), 176.

  6. Maksimovich I. V. (2019). Laser Technologies as a New Direction in Transcatheter Interventions. Photobiomodulation, photomedicine, and laser surgery, 37(8), 455–456.

  7. Arvanitakis, Z., Shah, R. C., & Bennett, D. A. (2019). Diagnosis and Management of Dementia: Review. JAMA, 322(16), 1589–1599.

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