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A recent, small-scale study tests whether light therapy improves cognition in people with mild cognitive impairment. franconiaphoto/Getty Images
  • Researchers are investigating infrared light as a treatment for various brain conditions.
  • Scientists have designed helmets that include light therapy, known as photobiomodulation (PBM) devices, which people can wear at home.
  • A recent study found that the PBM helmet improved the memory and motor function of middle-aged people with mild cognitive impairment.
  • The researchers hope that this new technology could also benefit people living with dementia.

Scientists from the United Kingdom recently completed a pilot study using a specially designed helmet that emits infrared light.

They tested the helmet in middle-aged people with mild cognitive impairment and found that the treatment improved memory, processing skills, and motor function.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Photobiomodulation, Photomedicine, and Laser Surgery.

PBM is a treatment that typically uses red or near-infrared light to elicit a response in cells and tissues. Research into PBM stretches back to the 1960s, when scientists were using newly invented — at that time — lasers. The main uses for the therapy were wound healing and pain reduction.

More recently, light sources such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have replaced lasers. Switching from lasers to LEDs means that PBM technology is now available for use at home in wearable devices at a much lower cost.

To explain how PBM works on the body, it is necessary to dive deep into the biology of human cells. Inside these cells are small bean-shaped structures called mitochondria.

Mitochondria generate most of the energy that cells need to perform their functions. The mitochondria store this energy in the form of a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

During PBM treatment, light particles called photons enter the body and interact with the mitochondria. If the wavelength and duration of the light exposure are correct, ATP levels will increase.

When a cell becomes damaged, its ATP levels can decrease, which impairs the cell’s metabolism and inhibits healing. Increasing the ATP in a cell may help the cell restore function.

Dr. Paul Chazot, a researcher at Durham University in the U.K., has spent many years developing a particular wavelength of infrared light for use in dementia therapy.

In the recent study, he worked with Dr. Gordon Dougal of Maculume Ltd. to investigate a PBM air-cooled helmet called Cerebrolite.

The technology, which uses a wavelength of 1,068 nanometers, is designed for a person to wear in their own home.

The researchers recruited middle-aged participants with mild cognitive impairment from across Spain and the U.K. They then randomized the participants to receive either the study treatment or a placebo treatment. The groups were age-matched.

The study team assessed the participants’ motor function, memory, and processing speed using Automated Neurophysical Assessment Metrics (ANAM), a validated computerized cognitive assessment tool.

Testing took place over 3 days to help account for the effect of day-to-day changes in cognitive function.

Each participant received a Cerebrolite helmet and instructions. The researchers asked them to use it for 6 minutes twice daily for 28 days.

Reassessments took place 3 and 28 days later, on 3 separate days again.

Of the 27 participants who completed the study and the follow-up assessments, 14 were in the treatment group, and 13 were in the placebo group.

In the treatment group, the researchers identified statistically significant improvements in the following categories:

  • overall performance
  • mathematical processing — working memory
  • delayed memory
  • tapping — right-hand motor function

Interestingly, the placebo group showed a deterioration in processing speed compared with the baseline and did not demonstrate significant improvement in any of the categories.

Rebecca Edelmayer, Ph.D., senior director of scientific engagement at the Alzheimer’s Association, told Medical News Today:

“Using light to stimulate the brain is an emerging technology, and this study begins to explore its use in targeting a specific area of the brain to improve memory. However, this is a very small study in healthy volunteers. Therefore, we don’t know from this work alone if this approach would work as an intervention or reduce risk of cognitive decline.”

“That being said,” she continued, “we’re starting to see companies looking at similar, noninvasive methods of stimulating the brain. For example, brain stimulation devices have been applied to other neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s to try to prevent degeneration of brain cells.”

Dr. Dougal told MNT, “Whilst I anticipated an improvement in memory, the improved motor function was a pleasant surprise.” He added:

“The next step is larger trials, and, given the improved motor function, a study in Parkinson’s disease is high on the agenda. In the event further studies demonstrate a similar outcome that is sustainable, then there is every possibility the technology will become standard care.“

Dr. Chazot said to MNT that “[the] next stage is to expand on clinical studies to demonstrate effects on larger numbers of Alzheimer’s patients and long-term benefits.”

In response to a question about his hopes for the future of the technology, Dr. Chazot said, “All being well, to have this as a cost effective, safe, and effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.”

It is important to note that as this is a pilot study, it does have limitations. Pilot studies are small, preliminary studies that aim to prove that a process works before larger, more expensive experiments begin.

As such, with only 27 participants, it is important to treat the findings with more caution than would be necessary with a large-scale study. The researchers also note that a review of the initial scores of the active and placebo groups indicated that the groups were not balanced, which may have affected the outcome measures.

Also, as the study participants were all in good health, any claims about how this technology might work in other groups would be premature.

Dr. Edelmayer explained to MNT: “[M]ore research is needed to understand how photobiomodulation might be used as a therapy or prevention for cognitive decline and dementia. Specifically, we need to understand what parts of the brain need to be targeted and at what point(s) in the disease course this treatment would be most impactful.”

“If proven to be effective, this could possibly be part of an approach that’s combined with other treatments, like drugs and lifestyle interventions.”

– Dr. Edelmayer

“The Alzheimer’s Association is funding a number of projects looking at noninvasive treatments for Alzheimer’s disease,” she said, “including two clinical trials looking at deep brain stimulation and photobiomodulation.”