The Effects of Light Therapy on Brain Function

Did You Know…that light therapy may boost brain function for many brain conditions, including dementia?

Today, brain-related diseases are among the most feared, whether they stem from dementia, stroke, or autism. That’s why new research from a team at the VA Boston Healthcare System is so exciting.  The team is testing the effects of light therapy on brain function in veterans with Gulf War Illness.

So far, their results are extremely promising.  The lead researcher believes this technology may have the potential to treat many types of brain-related conditions, including Alzheimer’s… and it may even become available for home use.

A Light-Emitting Helmet 

For the Boston study, veterans wore helmets lined with light-emitting diodes.  Those diodes applied red and near-infrared light to the scalp.  In order to deliver light to deeper areas of the brain, subjects also had diodes placed in their nostrils.  The treatments last about 30 minutes and involve no heat or pain.

“We are applying a technology that’s been around for a while,” says lead investigator Dr. Margaret Naeser, “but it’s always been used on the body, for wound healing and to treat muscle aches and pains, and joint problems.  We’re starting to use it on the brain.”

The light diodes are proven to increase nitric oxide, which improves blood flow to the area of the body being treated.  Now, MRI scans show that the LED therapy increases blood flow in the brain, as well.  The LED light works by penetrating through the skull and into brain cells.  There, it prompts the cells’ mitochondria to produce more of a chemical known as ATP.

“That can mean clearer, sharper thinking,” says Naeser.

Promising Early Results 

Naeser and her team have already published promising early results in peer-reviewed journals.  For example, last June in the Journal of Neurotrauma, they reported on a study of LED therapy in 11 patients with chronic traumatic brain injury.

Neuropsychological testing was conducted before the therapy and at several points afterward.  Subjects showed gains in…

Executive function
Verbal learning
Memory

Subjects also reported better sleep and fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The study authors have now begun testing the LED therapy among Gulf War veterans in a randomized clinical trial—the gold standard of medical research.

Future Research May Lead to Device for Home Use

Later this year, researchers will launch a trial of veterans who suffer from both traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Another trial of veterans with blast TBI will examine the impact of LED therapy on sleep and cognition.

Finally, Naeser is collaborating with the Army on a study testing LED therapy for active-duty soldiers with blast TBI.  That study will also test the feasibility and effectiveness of the nose diodes as a self-administered therapy for home use.

Naeser foresees potential not only for war injuries but for conditions such as depression, stroke, dementia, and even autism.  “There are going to be many applications, I think,” she says.  “We’re just in the beginning stages right now.”

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