Alzheimer's Hat Draws Skepticism

While one U.K. researcher says the device is promising, others are skeptical.

February 12, 2009, 4:06 PM

Jan. 28, 2008— -- What if the secret to stopping the progression of Alzheimer's disease — and perhaps even reversing its ravages — lay in the use of a special hat?

Too crazy, too goofy, too good to be true, warn experts on the debilitating disease.

Nevertheless, a team of British researchers is showcasing a bizarre-looking contraption that they say could stimulate the healing and regeneration of brain cells using a specific wavelength of infrared light — a category of radiation most often associated with heat energy.

And human trials on the Alzheimer's hat are even scheduled to begin this summer.

Dr. Gordon Dougal is one of the developers of the Alzheimer's hat. Dougal is also a director of Virulite, a U.K.-based medical research company that has in the past developed a machine to treat cold sores using the same infrared technology from which the hat is said to derive its benefits.

"From our perspective, anything that actually improves the cell function and resilience is going to have a long-lasting effect on the performance of the individual," he says.

The basis for his argument is a study performed by researchers at the University of Sunderland in the U.K. on a total of 30 rats, 20 of which were deemed to be experiencing middle-aged mental decline. The researchers found that by treating 10 of these rats with a specific wavelength of infrared light, the animals' performance improved in a maze-related task.

"Exposure to the rays improved the memory function of these rats to that of young rats," Dougal says. "We're now looking at a delivery system for a therapeutic dose of this light to activate the cellular repair cycle."

But Alzheimer's researchers not affiliated with the work say the chances that the hat would actually work for human patients is remote at best.

"I have not heard of anything along these lines before. Who knows what it is? But it sounds more hocus-pocus than anything," says Dr. Ronald Peterson, director of the Alzheimer's research center at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He adds that he has not seen any legitimate reason why exposure to infrared rays would lead to a halt or reversal of mental decline — through the regeneration of cells in the brain or otherwise.

"A strong bit of skepticism is warranted on this kind of thing."

"I cannot conceive of any underlying biological mechanism by which that could work," says Zaven Khachaturian, editor-in-chief of Alzheimer's & Dementia: Journal of the Alzheimer's Association.

"This sounds like a very gimmicky kind of thing to me. I would not waste time on it."

At a time when most experts in the field continue to debate the origins of Alzheimer's disease, in addition to its potential treatments, both researchers and families whose lives are affected are hungry for new findings.

But Peterson says that many of these ideas don't have the scientific solidity to withstand real scrutiny. And in these cases, he notes, a little information can be a very bad thing.

He says that recently, new headlines trumpeted a different kind of advance in Alzheimer's treatment, one that tested an unusual method of administering Enbrel, a drug often used for pain management.

But this study was only performed on one patient, and even after the researcher shared the results of his research, "the Alzheimer's Association couldn't even figure out what he'd done," Peterson notes.

"We got all kinds of phone calls from families," he says. "To report this dishonestly is really a disservice to the public."

And he says the news of the Alzheimer's hat will likely turn out to be another disappointment for a hopeful public.

"You can imagine how excited people would get if they thought a hat or hairnet that shot rays into the head would make a difference in Alzheimer's disease," he says. "I think we can approach these kinds of things with cautious optimism at best."

Still, Dougal says he is hopeful that human trials will show that infrared treatment has some positive effect against the disease, which affects more than 5 million people in the United States alone.

He says human trials are slated to begin this summer, and he adds that more conclusive results on the effectiveness of the Alzheimer's hat should be available by the end of the year.

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