Researchers at the VA Boston Healthcare System are currently testing the effects of light therapy on brain function in veterans with Gulf War Illness.
The current study is following up on promising results from a pilot study in which veteran participants reported fewer symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and better sleep after receiving light therapy. They also experienced gains in executive function, verbal learning and memory.
Gulf War Illness, also called Gulf War Syndrome, is a chronic disorder affecting veterans and civilians who took part in the Gulf War. It features a wide range of symptoms, including cognitive problems, fatigue, muscle pain, rashes and diarrhea.
Veterans in the study wear a helmet lined with light-emitting diodes that apply red and near-infrared light to the scalp. Diodes are also placed in their nostrils, to deliver photons to the deeper parts of the brain.
The light, which is painless and generates no heat, has been shown to increase the output of nitric oxide near where the LEDs are placed, which improves blood flow in that location. A treatment takes about 30 minutes.
Although still considered an investigational procedure, light therapy is already being used by some alternative medicine practitioners to treat wounds and pain.
“We are applying a technology that’s been around for a while,” said lead investigator Dr. Margaret Naeser, “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.”
Naeser is a research linguist and speech pathologist for the Boston VA, and a research professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM). She is also a licensed acupuncturist.
Naeser says brain damage caused by explosions, or exposure to pesticides or other neurotoxins — such as in the Gulf War — could impair the mitochondria in cells.
The red and near-infrared light photons penetrate through the skull and into brain cells and spur the mitochondria to produce more ATP, a chemical in the cell that releases energy. This can result in clearer, sharper thinking, says Naeser.
She believes light therapy can be a valuable adjunct to standard cognitive rehabilitation, which typically involves “exercising” the brain in various ways to take advantage of brain plasticity and develop new neural networks.
“The light-emitting diodes add something beyond what’s currently available with cognitive rehabilitation therapy,” says Naeser. “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.”
Previous trials using light therapy had promising results: neuropsychological testing in participants showed gains in areas such as executive function, verbal learning, and memory after the therapy. The study volunteers also reported better sleep and fewer PTSD symptoms.
The current trial, already under way, aims to enroll 160 Gulf War veterans. Half the veterans will receive real LED therapy for 15 sessions, while the others will get a mock version, using sham lights.
Then the groups will switch, so all the volunteers will end up getting the real therapy, although they won’t know at which point they received it. After each veteran’s last real or sham treatment, he or she will undergo tests of brain function.
Naeser hopes the findings will show LED therapy as a viable treatment for veterans and for others with brain difficulties. She foresees potential not only for war injuries but for conditions such as depression, stroke, dementia, and even autism.
“There are going to be many applications, I think. We’re just in the beginning stages right now,” she said.