Superuser/entrepreneur treats Alzheimer's with light

Superuser-turned-entrepreneur designs novel tech to combat Alzheimer’s with light

by Saemmool Lee

A young scientist pursuing a career in academic research entered into the CITRIS Invention Lab, wanting to build mice cages for a doctoral project. Ngoc Mai Nguyen, at the time a Ph.D. student in Integrative Biology, recalls when she first came into the makerspace in 2014 without any related experience. “It was like, ‘This is intimidating, I don’t know what I’m doing at all,’” she says. “But my entire career changed into a different direction based on a lot of the experience I had at CITRIS.”

Nguyen is now CEO and co-founder of OptoCeutics, a health startup developing new light technologies that can potentially improve cognitive function. The company was founded in Denmark last year, and its product was partly developed at the CITRIS Invention Lab. Nguyen is the only American, and the only woman among the eight co-founders. “I’ve never thought I would go into being part of a company,” she recalls.

Nguyen was introduced to the CITRIS Invention Lab through a friend. It was her first encounter with a makerspace. She started to learn how to use a laser cutter and 3D printer, and developed an interest in making things. “The good thing about the Invention Lab is that they are super welcoming,” she says. “You don’t know how to do something, but they will show you in a way that doesn’t make you feel like an idiot.” 

Chris Myers, the lab’s senior lab manager, says that the place is open to non-engineers and everyone feels comfortable being at the lab. “They don’t have to know everything,” he says. “We’re here to help with that, to guide you through. Everything is very accessible for anyone, no matter their background.” 

Nguyen became a “Super User” the next semester, a coveted designation earned by long-term (normally at least three semesters) lab users who have demonstrated knowledge and expertise of lab equipment and have started to teach other lab users how to use the equipment. Experiencing the CITRIS Invention Lab is not only about building, but also about exposure to people beyond scientists. A lot of startups came around and shared their experiences, and Nguyen began to think that she could also start a company. She says the experience also changed her as a person, who is now more comfortable being uncomfortable and a lot more outgoing, eager to learn from a wide variety of people. 

The turning point came in 2016, when Nguyen met Jes Broeng, professor and director of the Centre for Technology Entrepreneurship at the Technical University of Denmark, at the CITRIS Research Exchange, when he presented a talk on “Innovations and Entrepreneurship in Photonics for Health Care.” Nguyen discussed potential collaboration, studying how light affects circadian rhythm. Soon after, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published a research paper showing the benefits of flickering light. Their results indicated that a flickering light at 40 hertz increases the activity of microglia cells in areas that are inflammatory in Alzheimer’s patients, and decrease beta amyloid plaques build-up also seen in Alzheimer’s disease.

This was a discovery that could potentially change the lives of millions of people around the world, but Nguyen realized that in humans, flickering lights at 40 hertz could be extremely uncomfortable to look at for long periods of time, and could also carry common side effects including nausea, headaches, and seizure. Nguyen and Broeng discussed developing a technology that can modify a specific phase in the brain to an optimized period of frequency by light while reducing potential side effects. Nguyen went to Denmark in the summer of 2017 to work on the technology with students at Broeng’s university. She also used the resources in the CITRIS Invention Lab to design a prototype. The team finally completed a fully functional prototype and founded OptoCeutics.

The non-invasive technology works by shining a bright, composite LED-based light to human eyes that induces a 40-hertz signal to stimulate the brain. To the eyes the light would not appear flickering but a “masked” component of the light flickers at 40 hertz and therefore, still produces the beneficial effects of flickering light. The company aims to utilize the beneficial effects of the light without side effects. The ultimate goal is to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

OptoCeutics aims to conduct clinical trials in Denmark this August to test the efficacy of the light. The company has almost finished the regulatory process for clinical trials, and is planning to collaborate with two hospitals and two universities in the country. The first step is to modify a specific phase in the participants’ brains to restore circadian rhythm for several months and see if the technology improves sleep. If participants sleep more at night and don’t sleep during the day, it improves their mood and makes them more cognizant. Once initial results are in, the company will conduct a longer study with more participants, following them to collect data on cognitive improvements.

OptoCeutics also has a plan to establish a company and conduct clinical trials in the U.S.  Nguyen has been in talks with David Lindeman, the director of the CITRIS Health research thrust, to find partnerships. “He’s been pretty vital in terms of introductions, like ‘I know this person who can help you,’” she says. 

Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and one in 10 age 65 and older has the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Worldwide, 47 million people live with the disease, and there is no cure or treatment to stop its progression. Alzheimer’s is considered “the graveyard of pharmaceuticals” because many companies have put billions of dollars on clinical trials, but none of them have succeeded. 

Nguyen says that her company’s trial is a huge risk, but can potentially bring a huge reward. “With drugs being the graveyard of pharmaceuticals,” she says. “Why not try something that is noninvasive and has very low side effects?

“It’s such a negative disease that strips an individual’s behavior and personality. Any improvement will make the family happy. I can do something that is beneficial for society.”

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Photo: Joachim Rode


The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute drive interdisciplinary innovation for social good with faculty researchers and students from four University of California campuses – Berkeley, Davis, Merced, and Santa Cruz – along with public and private partners. Find out more at CITRIS-UC.org.