A sustained exposure to red and near infrared light can improve blood flow in the region of exposure, according to a new study on Gulf War veterans.
The light from the diodes has been shown to boost the output of nitric oxide near where the diodes are placed, which improves blood flow in that location. Researchers at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System are using light therapy to treat Gulf War illnesses in 160 war veterans.
"We are applying a technology that's been around for a while," said Dr. Margaret Naeser, the lead investigator. "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," Naeser added.
Veterans in the study wear a helmet lined with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) 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 is already used by some alternative medicine practitioners to treat wounds and pain.
"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," the researcher said.
Mitochondria are bean-shaped structures 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," Naeser explained. Naeser believes light therapy can be a valuable adjunct to standard cognitive rehabilitation.
The LEDs add something beyond what's currently available with cognitive rehabilitation therapy. "It's likely a combination of both standard cognitive rehabilitation therapy and LED treatment would produce the best results," she concluded.