Treatment with Light Benefits Alzheimer’s Patients

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January 30, 2012

Exposure to light appears to have therapeutic effects on Alzheimer's disease patients, a Wayne State University researcher has found.

In a study published recently in the Western Journal of Nursing Research , LuAnn Nowak Etcher, Ph.D., assistant professor of nursing, reported that patients treated with blue-green light were perceived by their caregivers as having improved global functioning.

Caregivers said patients receiving the treatment seemed more awake and alert, were more verbally competent and showed improved recognition, recollection and motor coordination. They also said patients seemed to recapture their personalities and were more engaged with their environment. Patients' moods also were described as improved.

Etcher's work is inspired by her interest in a phenomenon known as "sundowning," when Alzheimer's patients sleep during the day, wake up later and may be up all night long. Part of her doctoral research was to utilize light, a common intervention for circadian disorders, to regulate the rest-activity patterns of women with Alzheimer's.

This study, Etcher said, was an effort to address disagreement among researchers on the effect of therapeutic light in regulating rest-activity patterns in Alzheimer's patients. The study involved 20 women older than age 65 with Alzheimer's dementia from nursing homes in southeast Michigan. Each patient was assigned randomly to an experimental group receiving blue-green light treatments or a control group receiving dim red light.

A commercially available visor used to treat seasonal affective disorder and jet lag was used to administer the light to patients. Caregivers - patients' family members and nursing facility personnel - were not told which type of light was hypothesized to have physiologic effects.

Although blue-green light recipients comprised the active experimental group, Etcher said she was surprised when some recipients of red light - the placebo group - also were reported as showing improvements, with caregivers saying their patients were calmer and had reduced resistance to care.

The level of effects varied, Etcher said, noting that while the blue-green group recipients were largely reported by caregivers as showing improvement, a few showed little to no effect from the treatments.

"Some of the rest-activity pattern disruptions that we see