For a long time, the best hope there has been for people with Alzheimer’s disease is an early diagnosis and treatment to slow its progression. But now, scientists are testing the theory that oxygen therapy could reverse the condition. If so, it would be a huge step forward in the fight against the most common form of dementia, for which there’s currently no cure.
Scientists in Israel have studied the effect of administering oxygen while spending time in pressurised rooms on people with mild cognitive impairment. Six older individuals in the early stages of memory loss were found to have their symptoms improved after five sessions a week of 90 minutes for three months.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) works by patients inhaling oxygen through a mask while sitting inside a pressurised chamber to increase the oxygen to the body’s tissues. It’s a technique that has been used extensively by athletes to help them recover from intense exercise more quickly.
Experts believe it could help to remove the amyloid plaques in the brain that are closely associated with Alzheimer’s. This is achieved by increasing blood flow and changing the structure of the vessels in the brain.
Professor Uri Ashery, an expert in neurobiology at Tel Aviv University, told the Telegraph: “Elderly patients suffering from significant memory loss at baseline revealed an increase in brain blood flow and improvement in cognitive performance, demonstrating hyperbaric oxygen therapy's potency to reverse core elements responsible.”
The researchers measured the blood flow in the brain of the individuals undergoing HBOT before and after each treatment with an MRI scan. They also gave the participants memory tests to complete prior and in the wake of the sessions by way of comparison.
Significant increases of between 16 and 23 per cent of blood flow to a number of areas of the brain were observed after the HBOT sessions. This suggests the width of the blood vessels are expanded with the treatment, while the vessel walls may also reduce in thickness.
With regards to the memory tests, they performed 16.5 per cent higher post-treatment. This was split into a 6.2 per cent increase for concentration and 10.3 per cent rise in information processing.
Despite the promising results, the scientists are the first to acknowledge that more research is required, as their test sample was particularly small. While hyperbaric chambers are already used to treat a number of conditions, such as decompression sickness in divers, there are a relatively small number of them in the UK.
Professor Tom Dening, an expert in dementia at the University of Nottingham, told the Telegraph: “Presumably to be useful, the treatment would have to be continued indefinitely, so any patients would have to be very highly motivated and have good transport links to the treatment facility.”