Small pilot study claims low-dose radiation may treat severe Alzheimer’s
A compelling pilot study has found several treatments of low-dose radiation, delivered from a CT scanner, could increase alertness and responsiveness in people suffering severe late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The research is still preliminary but there are several larger clinical trials currently underway investigating radiation as a treatment for Alzheimer’s.
In 2015 an 81-year-old woman in hospice care underwent two routine CT scans to track neurological deterioration. The patient was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, immobile and virtually unresponsive.
Two days after the CT scans, the patient’s caregiver noticed incredible improvements. She was talking again, feeding herself, and even trying to get up and walk.
The patient’s spouse, aware of some research hypothesizing low doses of ionizing radiation as a potential treatment against age-related deterioration, pushed for several more CT scans over the subsequent few weeks. Her condition continued to improve and several months later she was discharged from hospice care, returning to the dementia care program she had previously been in 18 months prior.
Following on from this original case study, a small pilot investigation was launched to test this novel intervention in a cohort of subjects. Four patients with severe Alzheimer's disease were recruited, all of whom received three CT scans, each spaced two weeks apart. The CT device emitted the standard dose of radiation generally administered during a conventional head scan – between 40 and 80 milligrays (mGy).
Three out of the four subjects in the pilot study showed notable improvements within days of the first treatment, with mobility, engagement and alertness levels all reportedly improving. The son of one patient was cited as saying, “When I said hello, she looked at me and said, ‘Hello dear.’ She hadn’t said this to me in years!”
It is crucial to note this pilot study was small, had no placebo comparison, and lacked any quantitative measure to empirically track patient improvement. Also, one out of the four subjects displayed no behavioral changes whatsoever in response to the treatment.
Jerry Cuttler, lead author on the new study and retired Atomic Energy of Canada scientist, claims there is a plausible mechanism by which low-dose radiation could be directly contributing to these observable improvements in advanced Alzheimer’s patients.
"Numerous neurological disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, are thought to be caused in part by oxidative stress that damages all cells, including those in the brain,” says Cuttler. “We have natural protection systems to combat the damage, but they become less effective as we get older. Each dose of radiation stimulates our natural protection systems to work harder – to produce more antioxidants that prevent oxidative damage, to repair more DNA damage and to destroy more mutated cells.”
The hypothesis that low-dose radiation could treat Alzheimer’s disease is certainly on the fringes of mainstream research. It may not be a new proposition to suggest radiation could be beneficial in low doses in some contexts, however, it most definitely is still a controversial idea with little robust clinical evidence to back it up.
There are no less than four current clinical trials looking specifically at low-dose radiation as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. All of these trials are investigating higher doses of radiation than what is delivered by a CT scan. Instead, these trials are exploring doses of radiation closer to what is administered during radiotherapy for brain cancer patients.
Within the next few years, as some of these trials publish results, a clearer picture may emerge regarding the efficacy of this unconventional treatment. So, this new pilot study by no means offers definitive evidence low-dose ionizing radiation is beneficial for severe Alzheimer’s but it does suggest more clinical research is needed.
The new study was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.