Novel Light Therapy Helmet Boosts Brain Function

Megan Brooks

October 21, 2021

Near-infrared light delivered to the brain using a specially designed helmet appears to improve memory, motor function, and processing skills in cognitively healthy older adults, in new findings that suggest potential benefit in patients with dementia.

Studies in animals and people have shown "many positive effects" with near-infrared transcranial photobiomodulation therapy (PBM-T), study investigator Paul Chazot, PhD, Department of Biosciences, Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom, told Medscape Medical News.

For example, PBM-T has been shown to increase blood circulation (which keeps the brain well oxygenated), boost mitochondria function in neurons, protect neurons from oxidative stress, and help maintain neuronal connectivity, Chazot explained.

PBM-T has also been shown to reduce amyloid and phosphorylated tau load, pathological signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

"All these in combination improves memory performance and mobility," Chazot said.

The study was published online October 18 in Photobiomodulation, Photomedicine and Laser Surgery

Promising Early Data

In the study, 14 healthy adults, aged 45 to 70 years, received 6 minutes of transcranial PBM-T twice daily at a wavelength of 1068 nanometers over 4 weeks. PBM-T was delivered via a helmet that comprised 14 air-cooled light emitting diode panel arrays. A control group of 13 adults used a sham PBM-T helmet.

Before and after active and sham treatment, all participants completed the automated neuropsychological assessment metrics (ANAM) — a computer-based tool designed to detect speed and accuracy of attention, memory, and thinking ability.

Dr Paul L. Chazot (L) and Dr Gordon Dougal (R) with the near-infrared transcranial PBM-T test helmet.

According to the research team, compared with sham PBM-T, those receiving active PBM-T showed significant improvement in motor function (finger tapping), working memory, delayed memory and brain processing speed, the research team reports. No adverse effects were reported.

"This study complements our other recent studies, which showed improvement in memory performance with no obvious side effects," said Chazot.

"While this is a pilot study and more research is needed, there are promising indications that therapy involving infrared light might also be beneficial for people living with dementia, and this is worth exploring," Chazot added in a news release.

The PBM-T helmet was devised by first author Gordon Dougal, MBChB, of Maculume Ltd in the UK, and a general practitioner based in Durham.

A recent study by Dougal, Chazot, and collaborators in the United States provides early evidence that PBM-T can improve memory in adults with dementia.

In that study, 39 patients received 6 minutes of PBM-T twice a day for 8 weeks, alongside a control group of 17 patients who received sham PBM-T.

After 8 weeks, there was about a 20% improvement in Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE) scores in the active PBM-T group compared with roughly a 6% improvement in the control group, the researchers report in the journal Cureus.

More Research Needed

Reached for comment, Rebecca Edelmayer, PhD, Alzheimer's Association senior director of scientific engagement, said using light to stimulate the brain is "an emerging technology."

"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 [the] risk of cognitive decline," Edelmayer told Medscape Medical News.

"That being said, 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," Edelmayer noted. 

She said more 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," said Edelmayer.

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

Maculume Ltd provided funding for the study. Dougal is a majority shareholder in the company, which manufactures the helmet device used in the study. Chazot, study co-authors, and Edelmayer have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Photobiomodul Photomed Laser Surg. Published online October 18, 2021. Abstract

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