Following up on promising results from pilot work, researchers at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Boston Healthcare System are testing the effects of light therapy on brain function in veterans with Gulf War illness.
Veterans in the study wear a helmet lined with light-emitting diodes that apply red and near-infrared light to the scalp. They also have diodes placed in their nostrils, to deliver photons to the deeper parts of the brain.
The light is painless and generates no heat. A treatment takes about 30 minutes.
The therapy, though still considered "investigational" and not covered by most health insurance plans, is already used by some alternative medicine practitioners to treat wounds and pain. The light from the diodes has been shown to boost the output of nitric oxide near where the LEDs are placed, which improves blood flow in that location.
How do the diodes work?
The LED therapy increases blood flow in the brain, as shown on MRI scans. It also appears to have an effect on damaged brain cells, specifically on their mitochondria. These are bean-shaped subunits within the cell that put out energy in the form of a chemical known as ATP. The red and near-infrared light photons penetrate through the skull and into brain cells and spur the mitochondria to produce more ATP. That can mean clearer, sharper thinking.
Lead investigator Dr Margaret Naeser says brain damage caused by explosions, or exposure to pesticides or other neurotoxins — such as in the Gulf War — could impair the mitochondria in cells. She believes light therapy can be a valuable adjunct to standard cognitive rehabilitation, which typically involves "exercising" the brain in various ways to take advantage of brain plasticity and forge new neural networks.
According to the expert, the light-emitting diodes add something beyond what's currently available with cognitive rehabilitation therapy. Most of her patients she has helped with LEDs on the head have already been through cognitive rehabilitation therapy and showed additional progress after the new light treatments. Naeser reckons a combination of both methods would produce the best results.
Neuropsychological testing before the therapy and at several points thereafter showed gains in areas such as executive function, verbal learning, and memory. The study volunteers also reported better sleep and fewer PTSD symptoms.
The study authors concluded that the pilot results warranted a randomized, placebo-controlled trial, which is now underway.