The Daily
Mail
reports on a helmet that supposedly ‘
could reverse the symptoms of
Alzheimer’s disease within weeks of being used’. The helmet uses near infrared
light, which can penetrate the skull of patients. According to the Mail:

Its creators believe it could reverse the symptoms of
dementia – such as memory loss and anxiety –          after only four weeks.

 Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? It probably is.

The research hypothesis – that near infrared light would
reverse cognitive decline – was apparently suggested by the use of near
infrared to treat cold sores (the scientists who have developed the dementia
helmet have also marketed a device to treat cold sores, and hope to market a
dementia helmet in due course). Near infrared may be effective in treating cold
sores because it accelerates healing. It is a huge leap, though, from wound
healing to dementia. For one thing, neural cells do not regenerate at anything
like the same rate as other cells: stimulating them to regenerate faster would
have a small effect.

The scientists do have some evidence for their claims: a
single study of memory deficits in mice. They used mice which exhibit
significant memory impairments; their group of mice demonstrated a significant
reduction in maze navigation errors after exposure to near infrared mice.
However, there is no good reason to think this mouse study (which used only ten
treated mice, and which therefore has low statistical power) is actually
relevant: the deficits these mice exhibit are not a model for Alzheimer’s.

 What this
story really demonstrates are the costs and the benefits of encouraging
scientists to commercialize their research. On the one hand, a line of research
is being pursued that is speculative, but which may prove fruitful. It is
extremely unlikely that it will result in a cure for Alzheimer’s, as the scientists
suggest, but it may play a role in treatment, and may slow cognitive decline. Financial
incentives are working in just the way that we might hope in encouraging this
research. But the premature publicity and the hype surrounding the dementia
helmet represents a cost of encouraging commercialization. In their attempt to
generate publicity and therefore market share for their device, the scientists
are raising hopes that they will almost certainly fail to satisfy.

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