A magic helmet to cure Alzheimer’s disease?

Several readers have e-mailed me this story. It’s about a device developed in the U.K.. Based on near infrared light (NIR), the device, it is claimed by its creator, will be a major step forward for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. He even made some very bold claims that it could not just slow the cognitive decline associated with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease but actually reverse it.

Fortunately, a friend over at Science-Based Medicine has taken the time to separate the hype from the scientific basis behind this device. Suffice it to say that, although it’s not totally scientifically implausible, the reports are clearly more salesmanship than science. It’s possible that this device may be helpful in slowing the loss of neurons due to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, but it’s been by no means shown convincingly, even in mouse models. Let’s put it this way: The investigators should go back and do the work necessary to figure out if (1) there really is a mechanism by which NIR could ameliorate damage to neurons and (2) if there’s a shred of real scientific evidence that it actually works in humans before hyping it to the press like this.


  1. #1 daedalus2u
    January 28, 2008

    So that is the secret of Orac’s mental prowess. His brain is a box chock full of LEDs.

  2. #2 Eamon Knight
    January 28, 2008

    I’m just waiting for the “light therapy” woo people to jump on this as vindication.

  3. #3 Joe
    January 28, 2008

    How much cranial NIR do I experience if I venture outside in the sunlight?

  4. #4 Schwartz
    January 28, 2008

    I’m surprised this one didn’t get the full slam dunk from Orac. This guy was smart enough to invent something that was plausible to some degree while being hard to discount without further investigation.

    It reads like they plan to investigate further though.

  5. #5 melanie chavin
    January 28, 2008

    According to the article, the infra-red light emmitted by the helmet stimulates the growth of cells…forget about Alzheimer’s. There would be a bigger market in curing male pattern baldness.

  6. #6 Eamon Knight
    January 28, 2008

    But does the wavelength they are using actually penetrate the skull? And will it do anything beyond a little local heating? (Which I suppose would stimulate blood flow, if nothing else)

  7. #7 Vorn
    January 28, 2008

    Now all we need is a spear that cures heart disease, and Elmer Fudd will be the savior of a generation.


  8. #8 Confused
    January 29, 2008

    Okay, so the heirarchy of science reporting in the UK runs something like this:

    Peer reviewed literature > New Scientist (mostly reliable science, but tendency to overhype everything) > Guardian/Telegraph (broadsheet newspapers, sometimes make mistakes but usually reliable) > BBC News (frequently make mistakes) > Daily Mail (wise to question every sentence) > Daily Sport (softcore porn and stories about hamsters with magic powers)

    Unless there’s another reference from higher up that ladder, DON’T take it more seriously than the BBCs claim that blondes will be extinct in 200 years.

  9. #9 Orac
    January 29, 2008

    I don’t have the link handy, but it wasn’t just the Daily Mail. I saw it on BBC News as well, and now it’s showing up on ABC News.

  10. #10 jay
    January 29, 2008

    I posted this on sciencebasedmedicine as well:

    A couple of questions come to mind.

    1) A mouse skull is VASTLY thinner than a human skull, a mouse brain is vastly smaller, i.e. radiation that would penetrate through a mouse skull and brain would barely reach the outer layer of a human brain. Goosing up the power would seem to provide lots of scalp burns, and would heat the outer part of the brain significantly trying to treat the inner part.

    2) NIR is abundant in sunlight. Why doesn’t walking around in the sun provice the same miraculous effect?

  11. #11 cm
    January 29, 2008

    Did you really say “VASTLY thinner”?

  12. #12 cm
    January 29, 2008

    (ok, no, you wrote it).

    And recall, the mouse model used were the so-called “numbskull mice”, with the mutation which causes the skull to thicken to the same size as a human’s. (And they are so dumb!).

  13. #13 Joshua
    January 29, 2008

    How could this possibly be true when the last YFDoW conclusively proved that Alzheimer’s is caused by wearing shoes?

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