It came as quite a revelation.
It was sparked by the visit of a singer to entertain dementia patients at a rest home in Auckland, New Zealand.
Yvonne Kleyn, the home’s care manager, noticed that the residents were paying more attention to the lights surrounding the entertainer than the singing.
This led to an experiment to create a sensory room, full of different colored lighting as well as music and pleasant fragrances.
Glimpses of Their Old Selves Return
Louisa didn’t know who she was outside of the sensory room, but after a few minutes taking in her surroundings, she started to connect. From being agitated, she would calm down, smile, and show glimpses of her previous self.
It was the same with Ngaere.
Her daughter Pip said that when in the room her mother understands what is said to her, takes part in conversations and has long periods of clarity. “These moments don’t happen anywhere else,” Pip testifies.
Yvonne Kleyn told a reporter that “after ten minutes the person would settle with you and connect with you; make eye contact. Some people have said, ‘I’m here. I don’t know if it’s the music or the lights but I’m here, you can talk to me now.’”
Yvonne believes it’s a really wonderful concept that should be expanded, especially as it involves little cost.
The Positive Effects of Sights, Sounds and Smells
Stimulating the senses has been shown effective in a number of studies. For instance, researchers from the UK saw improvements in memory, concentration, processing speed and cognition in healthy volunteers taking in the aroma of essential oil of rosemary.
Singing, playing an instrument and listening to music have also been shown to improve mood, increase mental ability, and enhance cognitive skills.
Researchers have also explored the effect of color on cognitive task performance. Red can enhance performance on detail-oriented cognitive tasks. Blue enhances performance when it comes to tasks requiring creativity and imagination.
When healthy adults were exposed to a range of colors and lights, they were able to complete tasks up to 25% quicker and their reaction times were up to 12% faster. Hand to eye co-ordination and ability to recall a list of words also speeded up.
Regular exposure to very bright light diffused from a light therapy box was found to significantly improve scores on cognitive tests in Alzheimer’s patients and those with vascular dementia.
Another way of controlling brain activity with light is by way of a new technology called optogenetics. The technique enabled mice to retrieve lost memories in a study published in 2015, but it’s an invasive procedure involving surgical implants.
However, a new study may, according to Michael Sipser, dean of MIT’s school of science, “herald a breakthrough in the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s.” This is the surprising study he was talking about. . .
Flickering Lights Reduce Amyloid Plaques by 67%
Published in the journal Nature in December 2016, mice in the early stages of Alzheimer’s were exposed for one hour to LED’s flickering at 40 times per second. This is the same frequency as brain waves called gamma oscillations. Brain waves of this type are reduced in Alzheimer’s patients, yet considered essential for attention and memory.
In this short period, gamma oscillations increased, there was a dramatic increase in the activity of microglia — immune cells that clear away brain debris — and amyloid plaques were reduced by half in the visual cortex. It also curbed the build-up of tau proteins, another hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
The bad news is that all the deposits returned within 24 hours. However, when the light treatment was repeated for seven days, the amount of amyloid was reduced by just over two-thirds (67%), demonstrating that it was possible to sustain this effect over time.
Unlike mice, the brain region that processes sight is not a major area for the build-up of amyloid in humans. However, Professor Sipser believes this study has “opened the door to an entirely new direction of research [into Alzheimer’s] and the mechanisms that may cause or prevent it.”
While we wait for studies to see if the effect will be replicated in people, you can stimulate your senses with pleasant sights, sounds and aromas every day and reap their proven brain benefits.