Research Shows Light Therapy Boosts Brain Function

Light therapy is a promising new treatment therapy that could improve brain function and provide relief for patients with PTSD and other conditions. It is painless and non-invasive, and treats patients through the placement of red and near-infrared light-emitting diodes in a patient’s nasal cavity and on the scalp.



This basic procedure, also called LED therapy, has been shown in pilot testing to increase blood flow in the brain. There has been extensive research done on the new technology, and now a group of 160 veterans suffering from Gulf War Illness is being tested. Researchers claim that it is possible that the mitochondrial function of damaged brain cells is affected by the therapy and that the treatment might aid the brain in self-healing.

While this practice has been popular and effective in alternative medicine, modern science is just now catching on. Practitioners of alternative medicine swear by it to treat muscle pain and heal wounds, but it has only recently been used to treat the brain.

11 patients with chronic TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) caused by everything from auto accidents to an explosive device were first tested for therapy. Testing before and after the treatments showed improvements in “areas such as executive function, verbal learning, and memory.” Participants also reported getting better sleep along with a decrease in PTSD symptoms.

With the success of the first set of trials, the VA (Veterans Affairs) wants to sponsor further research. Already, VA Boston Healthcare Center has started the first of many controlled trials. They seek to treat veterans suffering from a combination of PTSD and TBI. There is already expanded research being planned for treatment of active soldiers who have TBI as well as other brain difficulties.

The research consists of randomized, placebo-controlled trials. Each participant will receive 15 sessions of the real LED treatment or a placebo treatment using fake lights. After 15 sessions, the groups will switch, and those who had received the placebo will then receive the real treatment and vice versa. Neither the participants nor the assistants who administer the treatment will be aware who is receiving the real treatment and who is receiving the placebo.

The lead investigator of the research, Dr. Margaret Naeser, says that “the light-emitting diodes add something beyond what’s currently available with cognitive rehabilitation therapy. That’s a very important therapy, but patients can go only so far with it. And in fact, most of the traumatic brain injury and PTSD cases that we’ve helped so far with LEDs on the head have been through cognitive rehabilitation therapy. These people still showed additional progress after the LED treatments. It’s likely a combination of both methods would produce the best results.”

The lead investigator, Naeser, is convinced that light therapy is a credible solution for treating brain stresses and dysfunctions. These involve impairment of mitochondrial function in brain cells. Pairing LED therapy with the other standard treatments designed to stimulate the creation of new neural networks could prove to be an effective combination. Nasser has cause to hope that once these trials are successful, light therapy can be used to treat those suffering from “depression, stroke, dementia, and even autism.”

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