Red Light Therapy For Neurological Conditions Explained

Red Light Therapy For Neurological Conditions Explained

What exactly is red light therapy? Is it safe? Can you use red light therapy for neurological conditions?  If so what neurological conditions might benefit from using it?

If you’re like us, you’d agree that your brain is the most important organ. It controls everything you do, think, feel, and experience. It also can get damaged as you get older, is vulnerable to trauma and can be impacted by diseases.

If you’re reading this article then chances are you or a loved one’s brain is not working like it used to and you’ve heard about red light therapy  or the term photobiomodulation and wondered could it help?

You may have memory problems, trouble concentrating, or maybe you’ve experienced depression or anxiety.

Maybe you’ve had a stroke or injury and suffered brain damage.

Or perhaps you or a loved one suffer from dementia or other degenerative condition like Parkinson’s.

All of these conditions no doubt affect your brain and threaten your life, your independence and we’ll often see this in our Memory Health Clinic. This article aims to explore a relatively new treatment approach with early positive research findings for people living with neurological conditions. 

In this article you'll learn:
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    Is Red Light Therapy A New Option For Neurological Conditions?

    Red Light therapy (RLT) has become increasingly popular in recent years.

    It’s a noninvasive, cost-effective, and easy-to-use treatment option for many disease symptoms. In addition, RLT appears to be safe and well-accepted treatment modality.

    The best, cheapest bright light source of red light therapy is from the sun which has been used for thousands of years to assist with wellness.

    Through clinical trials, science now gives a detailed picture of how light therapy can possibly relieve insomnia, depression, cognitive impairment, and other clinical symptoms in people living with neurological conditions.

    This form of intervention for neurological conditions is emergent with most research done in animal models with a small but growing number of human trials. In 2019 a literature search identified 95 publications associated with red light therapy for neurological conditions.

    Since then this number is expected to have almost doubled with further clinical studies demonstrating effective treatments.

    In the context of overall red light medical research, it’s small. There are over 4250 published articles, 500 plus randomised control trials and over 30 new publications monthly. 

    What Is Red Light Therapy?

    Red light therapy involves having powered red light beams emitted directly onto the skin which travels through the skin and bone for therapeutic purposes.

    Red light therapy (RLT) is a noninvasive treatment that uses  visible red light and or near infrared (not visible) light to  stimulate the body.

    There are two light sources for red light therapy devices: LED lights and lasers. Both emit light at specific wavelengths. LEDs produce a softer, wider glow, whereas laser therapy produces a bright light and sharper beam.

    If you’ve never heard of red light therapies before, you may already be familiar with other names, including 

    • photobiomodulation (PBM),
    • transcranial photobiomodulation (tPBM)
    • photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT)
    • near infrared light therapy (NIrT)
    • low level laser therapy (LLLT),
    • Low level light therapy
    • biostimulation (BIOS),
    • photo-stimulation (PStim),
    • Intranasal light therapy (ILT) – delivery of low level light via the nasal cavity
    • and a more novel term “Neuro Light Therapy”

    Photobiomodulation (PBM) is a more accurate reference to the layperson term “red light therapy”. In fact, the peak organisation behind research the World Association for Laser Therapy (WALT) changed its name to reflect this term and is now known as “World Association for Photobiomodulation Therapy“. 

    PBM has been known for almost 50 years but still has not gained widespread medical and health acceptance, largely due to uncertainty how it works, though this has changed significantly in the last 10 years (Hamblin MR, 2016). 

    How Does Red Light Work On The Brain?

    Photobiomodulation therapy (PBM) or Red Light Therapy for Neurological Conditions (RLT) is a type of treatment which uses light to help support brain health and performance. Red light works by stimulating cells in the brain called neurons and specifically a part of the neuron cell, an organelle called mitochondria. These are the energy producing units within any cell and are critical for your brain cells’ health. Based on clinical trials researchers believe PBM therapy may be useful in improving;
    • mental health
    • supporting the treatment of various psychiatric disorders
    • accelerating recovery from stroke or brain injury
    • as well as helping people who live with neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis and Dementia for example.

    Is Red Light Therapy Suitable For You?

    Schedule a free conversation with a therapist today and see if red light therapy may be indicated to help you acheive your goals? Interested?  Contact us using the best option below.  

    How Does Red Light Stimulate Your Brain?

    Red and especially near-infrared (red) wavelengths are long enough for them to penetrate human tissue – including bone – which makes them a viable option for targeting certain areas, especially linked to brain based conditions.

    Red light has been reported to penetrate through the skin from a depth of 1 millimeter and up to a maximum depth of about 50 millimeters.

    That’s a huge difference and it can be hard to understand what are the factors that help get to a maximum depth, because your brain has a lot in front if.

    Well, it comes down to 2 factors the wavelength of light and intensity.

    For most brain studies researchers are concerned about how much passes through the skin or “transdermal” or skull “transcranial”.

    The biggest barrier to light penetration is your skin and when it comes to your brain, your skull.

    And this is where most people get it wrong when searching for “best red light therapy for home use”

    How To Get Red Light Into The Brain?

    Longer wavelengths of far infrared light are absorbed by water molecules, which means that the energy cannot pass through the skin.

    However, there is evidence that suggests that shorter wavelengths of red and infrared (near infrared light) are able to penetrate further at the right intensity and appear to have beneficial effects for improving cognitive function.

    Red light therapy works best when applied directly to the skin and when administered at light wavelengths of 633–1065nm .

    However, some research suggests delivery of red light through the nose allows for red light 633- 700nm to be delivered effectively as well.

    Can Red Light Therapy Penetrate The Skull?

    To reach the brain, these a the current methods of delivery:

    • Transcranial treatment involves shining a light through the skull directly onto the brain. Using a near infrared light therapy helmet or headset is often an application method
    • Intracranial treatment involves shining the light into the brain via catheter in an artery
    • Intranasal treatment involves inhaling the light through the nose.
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    What Does Red Light Therapy Do?

    In one way you can observe red light therapy working from the inside out. As opposed to medications or other remedies that merely mask symptoms, red light therapy works from the cellular level to promote health – including your brain health and performance.

    What Is The Science Behind Red Light Therapy For The Brain?

    There are multiple mechanisms at play here and promoting one factor over another will give you a distorted view of the what is happening. The clinical trials have validated the view that in order for light to have an effect it must be absorbed.  The cell targets that absorb light via red light therapy are known as

    • Cytochrome c oxidase which is situated on the mitochondria. The effect of this increases
      • ATP levels, CAMP and Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) and Nitric Oxide (NO)

    in the end this means enhanced mitochondrial function and other cellular pathways.

    Image Source: Salehpur, et al (2018)

    That’s about as much as we’re going into the science of the what happens and in this article we have documented some of the key literature findings.

    The goal is to provide you with a layperson’s view of the clinical trials and complex science.

    Interested In Prefrossional Guided Red Light Therapy Programs?

    Schedule a free conversation with a therapist today and see if red light therapy may be indicated to help you acheive your goals? Interested?  Contact us using the best option below.  

    What Are The Research Supported Benefits Of Red Light Therapy?

    Near-infrared (NIR) photobiomodulation is an innovative treatment strategy has been used for a wide variety of neurological and psychological conditions, including Parkinson’s, dementia, depression, anxiety, pain, and insomnia and traumatic brain injuries.

    According to a paper by Yang et al 2021, it’s been shown to be effective for treating neurological diseases, peripheral nerve injury, pain relief, and wound healing.

    Original Image Source: Saltmarche et al (2017)

    But what’s the direct effect of light, how does it work and what’s the benefits?

    Systemic Effects of Light Treatments- More Than Just The Brain Benefits

    There have been some studies that directly address whether the beneficial effects of photobiomodulation on the brain can be attributed to direct delivery of light to the brain or more so by the overall exposure to the body ( without the brain absorbing the light).

    A photobiomodulation treatment clinical study of Parkinson’s disease in a mouse model, Mitrofanis and colleagues compared delivering light to the head, and also covered the head with aluminum foil, so that they delivered light only to the rest of the mouse body.

    These investigators found

    there was a high level of beneficial effect of direct light to the mouse head, but, there was also a statistically significantly beneficial effect on mouse behavior when the head was shielded.

    This is observed as a remote effect or far away effect where the light exposure impacts other areas of the body not directly exposed. So, you see there appears to be a systemic effect.  This offers a possible pathway for people who are possibly more sensitive or have health factors that may prevent direct light treatment.

    Enhances Brain Cell Functioning- Energy and Metabolism Benefits

    One of the most well studied benefits of Red and NIR light pivots around improved mitochondrial function and performance. In short the cell’s battery unit “mitochondria” are the energy producing hub of your cells, including the cells in your brain.

    When exposed to the right light the mitochondria is more effective in generating energy and metabolism (how it uses glucose). When the mitochondria is not effective it critically impacts the cells ability to perform (Hamblin MR 2016).

    The cell’s “energy centre’s” dysfunction is directly implicated in many neurodegenerative diseases. Studies show that mitochondrial dysfunction is a major factor in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, ALS, and frontotemporal dementia.

    “Given that dopaminergic neurons affected in Parkinson’s disease (PD) are particularly susceptible to energy fluctuations by their high energy demand, it is not surprising to note that mitochondrial dysfunction has emerged as a compelling candidate underlying PD and a target for Infrared PBM” (Chaun Foo et al, 2020).

    When mitochondria malfunction, your neurons cannot produce enough energy, causing cell death or places them in  a “state of dying” which can affect the performance of other cells around them.

    Mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress contribute significantly to nearly all types of neurological diseases and is associated with impacting recovery from traumatic brain injury (brain injury) and stroke.

    Light And How It Enhances Cerebral Blood Flow

    Looking at a key memory area of the brain,  the hippocampus,  the young adult brain has a tightly packed garden bed of new neurons (brain cells) waiting to grow or in a state of growth.

    As you age this “garden bed” becomes less dense, thinner and more dispersed of those baby neurons. But regardless of age, new neurons are always there.

    What appears to impact the density and growth of this memory garden bed is the availability of a nutrient rich blood supply.

    This  breakdown results when blood vessels become damaged and fail to deliver enough oxygenated blood to the brain. As a result, the brain becomes hypoxic and unable to function properly and the cells that rely on this blood die.

    Red light therapy works by increasing blood flow and oxygenation in the brain.  Applications can be wide effect or targeted.  When the light is absorbed by mitochondria there is a downstream effect of improving vasodilation (widening of blood vessels) allowing for improved delivery of nutrient rich blood to the brain.

    Reduces Inflammation and Oxidative Stress

    Chronic inflammation is a major risk factor for many neurological conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, depression, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Yes, a lot.

    According to Hamblin (2017) one of the most reproducible effects of PBM is an overall reduction in inflammation.

    Enhances Neurogenesis- Growing New Brain Cells

    Red light therapy is reported as a noninvasive treatment that helps stimulate the growth and regrowth of neurons which is essential when faced with trauma or a neurodegenerative condition.

    It works by stimulating ( in part) by the production of a protein called BDNF, which encourages the growth of new neurons and synapses.

    Science Backed Observations Of Red Light Therapy For Neurological Diseases

    No doubt there’s an increase in clinical studies using photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT), especially near infrared (NIR) light, to possibly treat various types of neurological diseases.

    Since the beginning of the 21th century, clinical research inroads have been made towards the application of PBMT yet there is a wide variation of clinical trial protocols documented in the literature which makes it challenging to compare one publication with another.

    This is the issue of an emergent field, not enough depth of research to allow a comparison. Despite this there are a number of considerations therapy teams will need to consider.

    6 Clinical Themes To Consider For Red Light Therapy From The Research

    There are a 6 consistent clinical themes in the research that continue to appear as factors guiding protocol development but in therapy settings it’s a little different.

    1. Target Effect (Plus): Stimulation may have a targeted goal such as improved mood,  support cognitive health, improve energy,  improve sleep for example. Bear in mind research is conducted to observe an effect. ” Does PBM do X for people living with Dementia?”  but that doesn’t happen in the clinic setting.   You see, therapy will also include activities such as exercise, cognitive therapy, nutrition, neurotherapy.
    2. Duration: This is associated with point 4 and relates to how long a session is conducted.  Depending on power and wavelength a person may have a treatment session from 5 to 20 minutes.  There is a “too much effect” to be mindful of and most products on the market will have a time out lock which reduces the likelihood of injury. Too much exposure will result in damage.
    3. Frequency: Relates to how often during the week and again is tied to point 4. We’d question the suitability of devices if they’re recommending a daily use and are a direct impact application as they are likely underpowered to have a beneficial effect.
    4. Dosage: ( Intensity, Wavelength and Pulse Mode) are all variables that appear in the literature. There is a preferential for many of the publications to use 630 to 900 with some also applying up to 1065nm.  Pulse rate is another factor that some research also applies.
    5. Length of treatment programs:  This is where most people have encountered challenges. For brain based conditions a program appears to require 10 – 12 weeks of application. That said, there have been no longitudinal studies that we have come across that has applied PBM for a prolonged period and some studies report regression after treatment is ceased. It may be a consideration to look at a longer term application
    6. Mode of Delivery: In order to penetrate the skull, skin contact (direct) unless via nasal cavity delivery ( indirect or not on the skin) is indicated. That said there is a growing case for whole body application with a systemic effect.

    Compared with traditional neurotherapy, pharmacotherapies, neuromodulation therapies and surgical techniques, the clinical trials of PBMT have built a promising, safe, minimally invasive therapeutic modality for some neurological disorders. However,  there needs to be a multimodal research application such as incorporating the FINGER protocols for people living with mild cognitive impairment or dementia, for example.

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    What Neurological Disorders May Benefit from PBM?

    The trend of applying PBM therapy to people living with neurological disorders is clearly increasing and can be viewed as supporting 3 major groups:

    1. Traumatic Conditions: Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Stroke and Ischemia whereby there is brain damage
    2. Neurodegenerative conditions: Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)/Dementia,
    3. Psychiatric Disorders

    And according to Hamblin MR (2016), there are possible Neurodevelopmental applications as well.

    Red Light Therapy Clinical Services Are Now Available In Brisbane

    Schedule a free conversation with a therapist today and see if red light therapy may be indicated to help you acheive your goals? Interested?  Contact us using the best option below.  

    Is Red Light Helpful For Parkinson’s? Clinical Studies Of Red Light Therapy For Parkinson’s Disease

    A human clinical study published in BMC Neurology Journal in 2020 found that red light therapy may help treat Parkinson’s disease. The study involved two groups of patients which showed both statistical and clinical improvements across both motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s. The 12 week program showed improvement on

    Larger randomised control trials are needed though proof of concept in both human and animal models suggests, according to the authors “PBM was shown to be a safe and potentially effective treatment for a range of clinical signs and symptoms of PD.”

    In mouse model of PD, Johnstone DM (2014)  applied light to the tummy side of the mouse whilst blocking the head with a tin foil guard. Even shielded, the mice demonstrated neuroprotection with body only application of light treatment. The clinical team observed the dopaminergic cells to be more protected suggesting a possible neuroprotective effect.

    There appears to be a genuine benefit for remote or body applied light treatment programs which may have a wider and more pervasive effect on people living with Parkinson’s disease but like the rest of the field, more evidence is needed.

    Is Red Light Therapy Beneficial For Dementia? PBMT For Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

    A 12 week program using RLT with people living with moderate to late stage dementia over 2 sessions per week demonstrated

    • On repeat cognitive tasks an improvement was observed, as well as
    • Improvements sleep, mood with fewer angry outbursts, less anxiety, and wandering were reported after PBM. There were no reported negative side effects.

    Further studies have also demonstrated improvements in quality of life, improved ability to perform daily activities, executive function skills and in improvement in social interactions with others.

    One Russian study offered arterial delivery of red light to people with varying stages of Alzheimer’s. Those who were treated compared to those who did not showed improvement of cerebral blood supply, reduction of dementia symptoms and restoration of cognitive function.

    Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are the most common types of neurodegenerative conditions. These diseases advance as a result of progressive death of many brain cells (neurons) and people experience a gradual loss of independence. Treatments exist for both, but regardless they continue to progress relentlessly with no known way to stop their progression.

    It’s clear there is a need for neuroprotective or disease modifying treatments which can prevent, slow or halt this degeneration. Lifestyle factors are one such pillar and according to Johnston et al, (2016)  Near Infrared Light Therapy (NIrT) is emerging as a possible safe and effective treatment for neurodegenerative diseases.

    It’s likely that the PBMT programs with people. living with Dementia and AD will need to be continued indefinitely, as regressions have been observed when PBM treatments have ceased or at least regular periodic doses may be needed long term. A clinically designed home program may be of assistance for people seeking home program applications. 

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    Can Red Light Therapy Help Depression and Mental Health? Improvement In Psychiatric Disorder Symptoms

    In a 2018 study, researchers found that an eight week treatment period using red and near infrared light therapy showed great potential in treating depressive disorders.

    Near Infrared Light Therapy (NILT) was observed to effect positive changes in depression associated with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). According to a 2017 study involving 39 patients, most patients had significant improvements in depression symptoms and remained free of depression for more than four years after treatment.

    Another study on the effects of near infrared light on veterans experiencing Gulf War Syndrome found found that participants self reported improved sleep, improvements on thinking skills and relaxation (Martin et al, 2021).

    Animal and human studies, using a variety of PBM settings and experimental models, suggest that PBM may have significant efficacy and good tolerability in people living with Major Depressive Disorders(MDD).  The author states

     these data support the need for large confirmatory studies for PBM as a novel, likely safe, and easy-to-administer antidepressant treatment (Askalasky et al, 2019)

    The State Of Red Light Therapy Evidence – More Is Needed Especially This

    The fact that PBM may produce a wide range of beneficial changes in brain function, and is without any serious side effects, suggests that it should be more widely considered for clinical applications with an emerging research base in trauma, neurodegenerative and psychiatric conditions. No doubt the evidence is diverse and the quality inconsistent so there is a need for larger controlled clinical trials. Terms to describe the treatment are confusing and maybe interchangeable, but to be honest this doesn’t help when attempting to compare interventions or for the person on the street to understand what’s happening and what works. An example of this is using the term “low level light therapy“, most marketing and some researchers appear to refer to this as a “power” of the. device statement, which is not correct. Instead it refers to state of the tissue during and after light exposure. In this case – low means no or little tissue damage.  Whilst animal studies have allowed technology and scientific understanding to advance and is cost effective for the lab the need for quality human studies is clear. The good news is, it’s happening. From our perspective, research insights to better define the multimodal cognitive rehabilitation therapy and recovery programs that incorporate neurofeedback, lifestyle and medication as well as RLT and PBM would be highly beneficial.  This is systemic approach is better aligned to what happens in our memory health clinic for example.

    The Safety Of Red Light Therapy

    According to Hamblin (2019) exposure to light at levels lower than those received in direct sunlight (without harmful ultraviolet wavelengths) is inherently safe. The PBM therapy application appears not to interfere with medication regimes especially those living with Parkinson’s disease for example yet there are contraindications when people are using medication which makes them more photosensitive. People who are taking medications such as lithium, melatonin, phenothiazine antipsychotics, and certain antibiotics may be more sensitive to therapy.  People with a history of skin cancer and systemic lupus erythematosus should also avoid this kind of treatment. There are still questions about what wavelengths are best suited for each condition and working with an experienced therapist is going to be likely a key relationship for many people moving forward. There is also evidence that certain wavelengths may not be suitable for everyone. For example, red light may be harmful to those who are sensitive to sunlight or who are taking medication with resulting photosensitive side effects.

    When Should You Not Use Red Light Therapy?

    RLT may not always be appropriate for everyone and the current indications for non use are
    1. Presence of malignant tumours, primary or secondary
    2. Direct irradiation to the eyes
    3. When taking medications that increase your sensitivity to light
    4. With infants
    5. Not directly applied to the Thyroid gland
    6. Not over a recent haemorrhage, such as an aneurysm, after a fall or stroke ( bleed)
    What Are Possible Adverse Reactions? Some people experience negative side effects when using RLT. These side effects include mild headaches, nausea, fatigue, insomnia and irritability and visual changes. They however are transitory, short term and commonly associated with too much exposure or intensity. Your eyes are also sensitive to light exposure and eye protection is recommended to be worn.

    What Are The Risks Of Using Red Light Therapy Every Day?

    Too much exposure will have a harmful effect where tissue damage may occur, or an re-emergence of acute symptoms. For some people using higher pulse rates may have an anxiety or symptom amplification affect and this is where working with a therapist will be helpful. That’s why when choosing a treatment regimen, it is important to consider your individual needs,  preferences, health, goals and how this fits within your overall therapy framework.

    Can I Use Red Light Therapy At Night?

    Yes, but consider the pulse rate that your device applies. This can increase your arousal and as a result affect your sleep quality.

    How Many Times A Day Can I Use Red Light Therapy?

    Right, so you’d appreciate there are many factors to answer this, that said, safety first and be aware of the “too much” effect. This depends on the wavelength and intensity of the device, your target goal as well as your health, medical and medication factors.  How long a session is as well as frequency are going to be two factors to consider when using your device.

    Brisbane Clinic Now Offering Red Light Therapy To Help With Brain Health and Performance

    Red light therapy is reported to be a non-noninvasive with little side effect treatment that uses low levels of red or near infrared light to stimulate the brain and body. Scientific evidence is growing on how this may improve mood, memory, movement and concentration in people living with brain based neurological health changes. The treatment is demonstrated to be safe with minor risks, painless and takes upto 20 minutes per session. If you’re considering this as a possible therapy option, please do not hesitate to contact us today to discuss if this is a viable solution for your situation. All therapy services beginning with a thorough assessment so that you have a clear picture of what therapy solutions are available to you. Call us today to 1300 783 200 or contact us here to learn more about Red Light Therapy applications for your brain. 

    — Disclaimer —

    The Occupational Therapy Blog and Website is a news and health promotion initiative. It by no means aims to be a source of medical or therapeutic advice. We enjoy sharing information and will attempt to curate it as best we can. You’d appreciate we like to lighten our blog articles which often tackles very serious and personal issues. It’s our way of sharing. The information contained on this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, or intervention. Always seek the advice of your GP or qualified therapist with any questions you may have regarding your personal situation. Never substitute or delay seeking professional advice because of information you’ve read on this website.

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