It could be a scene from a futuristic 80’s movie: A helmeted, goggled man sits in a chair while the little diodes in his cap shoot tiny beams of light into his scalp and nostrils. The scenario isn’t science fiction, however—it’s a real, promising new treatment, known as light-emitting diode (LED) therapy in which red and infrared light enter into and heal the body (in this case, the brain). Currently, it is being tested on veterans with Gulf War Syndrome, and the results are very promising.
Gulf War Syndrome, a chronic multi-symptom disorder, affects many veterans and working civilians who have returned from the Gulf War. Sufferers are often plagued with cognitive dysfunction, mood problems, headaches, insomnia and chronic fatigue. The syndrome has been linked to exposure to particular war chemicals, such as the nerve-gas sarin, certain pesticides, and pyridostigmine bromide (anti-nerve gas drug).
Light therapy, which is painless and produces no heat, does not simply mask symptoms—it goes straight to the source of pain and begins the healing process. Although it is still in the “investigational” stage for use in Gulf War Syndrome, the treatment is already being used successfully by many alternative health practitioners for pain and wounds.
"We are applying a technology that's been around for a while," says lead investigator Dr. Margaret Naeser in a press release, "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."
One trial, which is already underway, aims to treat 160 Gulf War veterans. Half of the participants will receive LED therapy for 15 sessions, while the other half will get a mock version with sham lights. Then the groups will switch, so that everyone gets the real therapy, although no one will know when they actually received it.
How it works depends on whom you ask. Eastern medicine approaches light therapy as it relates to the energy systems and chakras of the body. During treatment, light (energy) enters deep into the body (also energy) where it is able to balance systems, heal wounds and relieve pain.
Western doctors attribute the success of light therapy to physical processes which can be seen and tested. For example, the light from the diodes increases the output of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow. It also appears to have an effect on damaged brain cells, specifically the mitochondria (units within the cell that put out energy in the form of a chemical known as ATP). The light triggers the mitochondria to produce more ATP. That can mean clearer, sharper thinking, says Naeser.
Naeser's research team has already published promising findings on LED therapy in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Last June in the Journal of Neurotrauma, they reported the results of LED therapy on patients with chronic traumatic brain injury (TBI). Most of the injuries were the result of car accidents or sports—one, however, was a battlefield injury, from an improvised explosive device (IED).
After the therapy, the participants showed brain improvement in areas such as executive function, verbal learning, and memory. They also experienced better sleep and fewer PTSD symptoms.
Naeser is hoping that the research findings will validate LED therapy as a viable treatment for veterans and others with brain difficulties. She believes the therapy has potential not only for war injuries but for conditions such as depression, dementia, stroke and autism.