A new therapy could be music to the ears of hundreds of thousands of Canadians suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
A recent study found that sitting down patients in a chair with built-in speakers and subjecting them to sound stimulation at 40 hertz had "promising" results in terms of increasing their cognition, clarity and alertness.
The research, which was undertaken by researchers from the University of Toronto, Wilfrid Laurier University and the Baycrest Centre hospital in Toronto, studied the effects on 18 participants with different stages of the disease (six mild, six moderate and six severe) after six sessions of treatment.
They also received a second round of treatment through visual stimulation on DVDs, also across six sessions.
Researchers then tested the participants on their mental, emotional and behavioural states.
They found that the 40 Hz stimulation had the strongest impact on patients with mild or moderate Alzheimer's disease.
While the study's sample size is small, Lee Bartel, one of the authors of the study says the findings are encouraging.
"I was absolutely delighted and elated because … you go from theory, and this study had not been done before," said Bartel, associate director of the Music and Health Research Collaboratory at the University of Toronto.
Bartel said the study saw some of the participants with mild Alzheimer's return to being "normal again," and those in moderate condition see their symptoms be downgraded to mild.
"They became more engaged with their present space and the people around them," said Bartel.
"They seemed to be more alert and more interested in life and the goings on, and, in fact there was evidence of some memory from two or three days before ," he added.
Amy Clements-Cortes, another one of the authors and senior music therapist at Baycrest, was also hopeful about the study's findings.
"(There was) increased clarity and cognition, as well as increased alertness to the surroundings, and we also saw that it prompted spontaneous discussion, storytelling and reminiscence," said Clements-Cortes.
Bartel said he came up with the premise of the study after seeing research from the 1990s that Alzheimer sufferers have a lower frequency pattern at which neurons interact in the central nervous system. In healthy people, the pattern, or gamma frequency, generally hovers around 40 Hz.
Bartel compared it to the need for wireless telephones to function at the same frequency in order to communicate.
"Parts of the brain appear to need to be at the same communication frequency, and that frequency is about 40 Hz," said Bartel.
"So when you have a deterioration of that -- when you have too little of it -- the two parts of the brain that want to talk to each other, like the thalamus and the hippocampus, the short-term memory to the long-term memory, they can't talk to each other, they won't communicate, so you won't have a long-term memory."
Bartel said the sound-stimulation treatment at 40 Hz leads to an "increased" frequency, which allows "parts of the brain to talk to each other again."
"So in a sense it is like sitting on the subwoofer of your sound system," explained Bartel.
"So you are getting both the sound and the feeling of the vibration, which in turn is communicated through the cells of the body."
Bartel said the body's cells proceed to relay the frequency to the sensory-motor and auditory cortices to "reregulate" the brain.
Despite the treatment being relatively non-invasive, there are some risks, according to the authors.
Bartel said the magnets in the chair's built-in speakers could pose problems for people with pacemakers. The vibrations could also be dangerous for people with blood clots or strokes. The authors also don't recommend the treatment for pregnant women.
"There are very minimal risks -- it is only sound," said Bartel.
While Bartel admits the treatment is likely not the "cure for Alzheimer's," he and Clements-Cortes said it could be a "relatively inexpensive" way for people to treat themselves at home.
Bartel said the chair they used at Baycrest cost $10,000, but there are devices on the market or new ones that are "much less expensive."
"What we have is potentially a means where a person at home can use a vibratory-therapy device and with the right soundtrack -- that we can find a way to make -- people could treat themselves, and perhaps it could delay the speed of development, or it could, even in some cases, offer a reversal of a mild sort," said Bartel.
"In the broader scale, even if we could halt the rapidity or the decline that would already be a great achievement, and I think that is completely realistic."
Bartel hopes the study's results spur more research in the area.
The University of Toronto is also hosting a showcase for the study, and other breakthroughs that combine music and science, at an event on May 3.
With a report from CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip