Light therapy boosts brain healing after injury, shows study

Credit: Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

Low-level light therapy may help heal brains that have suffered significant injuries, according to a study published in Radiology.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) found that this type of light therapy improves brain connectivity in people who had moderate traumatic brain injuries.

For years, scientists have studied different wavelengths of light for their healing properties.

In this study, 38 patients with moderate brain injuries received low-level light therapy within 72 hours of their injuries.

The light therapy was delivered through a helmet that emits near-infrared light.

“The skull is quite transparent to near-infrared light,” said Dr. Rajiv Gupta, one of the study’s lead authors. “When you put the helmet on, your whole brain is bathing in this light.”

Researchers used functional MRI (fMRI) to see how light therapy affected the brain. They focused on resting-state functional connectivity, which is how different brain regions communicate when a person is at rest.

They compared MRI results during three recovery phases: the first week after injury, two to three weeks post-injury, and three months after injury.

Of the 38 patients, 21 did not receive light therapy while wearing the helmet. This control group helped the researchers avoid bias and potential placebo effects.

Patients who received light therapy showed a greater increase in brain connectivity in seven brain region pairs during the first two weeks after their injury compared to those who did not receive the therapy.

“There was increased connectivity in those receiving light treatment, primarily within the first two weeks,” said study co-author Nathaniel Mercaldo.

However, the researchers did not find long-term differences in brain connectivity between the two groups. This means that while light therapy initially boosts brain connectivity, its long-term effects are still unknown.

The exact mechanism behind light therapy’s effects on the brain is not fully understood. Previous research suggests that it might alter an enzyme in the cell’s mitochondria, leading to more production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which stores and transfers energy in cells.

Light therapy has also been linked to blood vessel dilation and anti-inflammatory effects.

“There is still a lot of work to be done to understand the exact physiological mechanism behind these effects,” said study co-author Suk-tak Chan, a biomedical engineer at MGH.

While light therapy increased brain connectivity in the short term, there was no evidence of a difference in clinical outcomes between treated and control patients. More studies with larger groups and longer follow-up times are needed to determine the full benefits of light therapy for brain injuries.

Researchers believe that light therapy could have applications beyond brain injuries. The 810-nanometer-wavelength light used in the study is safe, easy to administer, and portable. It may help treat other neurological conditions like PTSD, depression, and autism.

“There are lots of disorders of connectivity, mostly in psychiatry, where this intervention may have a role,” said Dr. Gupta. “PTSD, depression, autism: these are all promising areas for light therapy.”

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