South Bend study tests effect of light therapy on dementia
By Joseph Dits South Bend Tribune-SOUTH BEND — Raised on a farm, John Stahly learned to milk cows and fix things. But here, in Morningview Assisted Living, the 95-year-old is trying to pick his way through a mild case of dementia.
In his room, three lamps feed him a special light that, researchers hope, will boost his cognition. “At Bendix (Corp.) they’d come with a logistics problem, and I’d try to solve it,” he says in his room, recalling his career in the South Bend company’s engineering research and development department. “I learned more when things failed.”
He is among the first four Morningview residents who are in a study to see if light therapy could ease the effects of dementia. And while the lights are similar to the ones used to treat people with seasonal affective disorder, this study isn’t about depression. It’s about sleep. Scientists know that poor sleep hurts anyone’s ability to function, no matter who they are. “Lack of sleep is a problem nationwide,” said Dr. Suhayl Nasr, the local researcher, who is medical director for Memorial Epworth Center, the inpatient psychiatric care division of Memorial Hospital, which is across Niles Avenue from Morningview.
But sleep issues are particularly common among all people with dementia, Nasr said. They may wake up often at night and then fall asleep during the day. Nasr said this study aims to see: Can this kind of light therapy alter a dementia patient’s circadian rhythm so that they have a more solid night of sleep? And, as a result, does that improve the person’s cognitive functions?
Here’s how these lights are different from the SAD lights: These have more short wavelength light, that allows researchers to reduce the brightness while having the same effect on the body, said Mariana Figueiro, who’s coordinating the study from the Rensellaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, where she researches the effects of lighting on human health.
These lights put out just 400 lux, a measure of illumination, compared with 10,000 lux for SAD lights, she said. Morningview is among five sites that are running the studies in the U.S. and the only one in the Midwest. Three more sites are preparing to start the study, Figueiro said.
At Morningview, Stahly and the other participants sit an hour each day with the lights — either with ordinary looking lamps or at a table that emanates light. University of Notre Dame students collect data and ensure that the participants stay awake, so the participants’ eyes receive the light. A small box hangs around their necks to measure the amount and quality of light going to their eyes. The positioning of the lights is key. Never mind the skin, said Nasr: “You want to have enough light into the eyes.” Another device on their wrists, similar to a Fitbit, tracks their sleep and physical activity.
Nasr doesn’t have enough data to make any conclusions yet, but Morningview’s director, Roger Ringenberg, said he’s already seen changes. He speaks of a woman in the study who sees her husband daily, a man who often plays ping pong in the game room. “He really likes to play ping pong,” Ringenberg said to her one day. “I’m so happy,” the wife responded. “That shows empathy,” Ringenberg told a reporter. “Now I’m able to carry on a conversation with her, a real conversation, and that wasn’t the case before.” Stahly had already been somewhat talkative, but Ringenberg said, “It seems like the light study has given him a boost, a shot in the arm.”
Ringenberg feels strongly that the residents need the stimulation of both sound and light. For example, when he offered one of his daily devotionals, a resident (not in the study) responded by praising God. But, when asked, he said Morningview hasn’t so far tapped into the music therapy that has proven effective nationwide and in a few cases locally for dementia. People listen to favorite tunes from their younger years — a simple exercise that typically sparks singing and new life in patients’ eyes, at least while the music plays. It also helps that young college students are visiting and talking with the study’s participants daily — and that news media came on Wednesday. Nasr acknowledges that. Brain experts have widely agreed that social interaction, exercise, a healthy diet, stress reduction and trying new and challenging things — even altering a daily routine — can fend off the effects of dementia.
But, to see if it’s truly the light that’s making a difference, Nasr said the light is switched every four weeks from the special bulbs to everyday light bulbs — unbeknownst to the participants. Morningview staff are using standard tests, with questions and tasks, to evaluate the participants’ memory and cognitive functions at four points in the study. They’re also assessing the patients’ mood since depression can also play havoc with dementia. Nasr said they won’t examine the data until the research period is done. Stahly will finish up a 12-week study period on Friday. Then other participants will begin a new cycle. They’ll continue until all of the research sites have studied a total of at least 50 people. Some will go through six-month study cycles.
So, if the light therapy works for them, could it help the rest of us? The lights are designed to help people correct bad sleeping patterns, and they’re becoming more common, Figueiro said.
“The key is to avoid using it in the evening hours and at night,” she advises. “If using during the daytime, they are OK.”