Could wearing a light-emitting helmet for six minutes a day reverse dementia? Health Editor Barry Nelson reveals how Sir Terry Pratchett has been testing a prototype invented in the North-East.

THE idea that patients with Alzheimer’s disease might be able to slow down, or even reverse their dementia by wearing a therapeutic helmet sounds like pure science fiction.

But, as The Northern Echo reveals today, one of the world’s best-selling fantasy writers, Sir Terry Pratchett, has been using such a helmet.

The prototype anti-dementia helmet was invented by County Durham GP, Dr Gordon Dougal, who spends most of his time seeing patients with coughs and colds at surgeries in Spennymoor and Peterlee.

Dr Dougal is convinced that this device, which works by directing intense bursts of light of a particular wavelength into a patient’s skull, could help thousands of people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

He has already developed a hand-held gadget which utilises the same technology to stimulate cold sores to heal themselves. Virulite is available on the NHS and is proving a popular alternative to cold sore potions.

In independent research carried by Sunderland University, the technology used by Virulite and now the anti-dementia helmet has been shown to have a measurable healing effect on human tissue.

Encouraged by the success of Virulite, Dr Dougal designed and built a prototype helmet containing 700 diodes which emit light at a precise wavelength of 1072 nanometres.

As revealed in today’s The Northern Echo, Sir Terry, author of the Discworld series of novels, contacted Dr Dougal last year and asked to try the helmet.

Dr Dougal, who was aware of Sir Terry’s interest in finding ways of treating Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, was glad to help.

Until now he has kept silent about Sir Terry’s interest in the new helmet, but now feels able to tell the story.

“When Sir Terry’s people contacted me I was very happy to help,” he says. “We made another prototype helmet and he has had that since last August.”

To ensure the helmet was a good fit, a friend of Sir Terry made a cast of the author’s head and, to allow him to use it for the standard six minutes a day recommended by Dr Dougal, the helmet was clamped to the back of an armchair at the writer’s cottage home.

Sir Terry was assessed by a computer programme designed to show up signs of dementia at the start of the treatment and after three months of daily exposure to the light rays.

The result showed a small, but measurable, improvement in his condition. More importantly, says Dr Dougal, the computer could find no signs of further deterioration during this period.

Sir Terry is anxious to find a way of slowing down, or even reversing, his Alzheimer’s, and has donated a large sum of money to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust to help fund a number of research projects.

And late last year he was one of a group of Alzheimer’s patients from all over the UK who handed in a petition to 10 Downing Street calling for an increase in funding for dementia research “as a matter of urgency”.

The petition was backed by 20,000 people, scores of parliamentarians, celebrities and more than 100 leading scientists.

Dr Dougal is encouraged by Sir Terry’s experiences of the light-emitting helmet, but acknowledges that he will have to wait for a clinical trial before the device is widely accepted.

That is now expected to happen some time this spring, once the GP secures approval from his local medical ethics committee.

The trial is likely to involve 20 volunteers with early stage Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. All will be exposed to daily light therapy and if the patients respond, Dr Dougal expects to mount a larger trial involving two groups, one receiving active light therapy and the other receiving placebo or “dummy” treatment.

In a small, informal trial at The Friarage Hospital, in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, involving nine dementia patients, doctors noted measurable improvements to their cognitive behaviour and social skills.

Dr Dougal is particularly pleased at the progress made by several overseas patients who have been using light helmets.

The Northern Echo reported last year how Clem Fennell, 57, from Kentucky, regained his ability to hold a conversation with his family after wearing the helmet for just six weeks.

In the US, patients with dementia are compelled regularly to sit driving tests. Last June, Mr Fennell came close to being disqualified.

But, in November, he retook his test and passed with flying colours. “The instructor said she had never seen anyone with dementia come back and do better,” said Dr Dougal.

The Alzheimer’s Society has said light therapy is a “potentially interesting technique” but Dr Dougal is confident that a clinical trial will prove him right. With an estimated 700,000 people in the UK affected by dementia, any breakthrough could be immensely significant.

■ Sir Terry Pratchett is to appear in a BBC2 documentary next month about his battle with dementia.