A pilot clinical trial (NCT04568057) conducted on the efficacy of photobiomodulation therapy (PBM-T) claims it may provide a promising new approach to improve memory function in healthy, middle-aged people with normal intellectual function for their age.

The study, conducted by a team led by Paul Chazot, PhD, associate professor, Durham University, and Gordon Dougal, MB ChB, at Maculume Ltd., subjected 27 participants to near-infrared light (NIR) at 1068 nm wavelength twice daily using an air-cooled LED helmet that participants can wear on their own. The results showed significant improvements in 16 behavioral assessment scores that included measures for movement, memory performance, and reaction times.

The research is published in an article in the journal Photobiomodulation, Photomedicine and Laser Surgery, titled “Effect of Transcranial Near-Infrared Light 1068 nm Upon Memory Performance in Aging Healthy Individuals: A Pilot Study.” The authors concluded that infrared light therapy might have the potential to help people living with dementia and other disorders such as Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, and motor neuron disease.

“We’ve shown what appears to be real improvements in memory and other neurological processes for healthy people when their brains are exposed to a specific wavelength of infrared light for consistent, short periods of time,” Chazot said. “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. Indeed, we and our U.S. research collaborators recently also published a new independent clinical study which provides the first evidence for profound and rapid improvement in memory performance in dementia.”

Tracy Sloan, 56, a healthy grandmother and administrator from Durham was introduced to the therapy by Dougal. She wore the helmet morning and night for six minutes each time over a period of three months. Using the infrared light therapy helmet for a few weeks has improved her memory, sleep, and mood, Sloan said. “I wasn’t sure it would make a difference, but to be honest I think it did,” she added.

The pilot study included 14 healthy people, aged 45 and above from the U.K., who self-delivered six minutes of PBM-T twice daily over four weeks. A placebo group including 13 healthy individuals wore a dummy PBM-T helmet. Before and after the four-week duration of the therapy, the scientists conducted a series of tests to assess the memory, and verbal and motor skills of the participants.

The researchers used standard, computerized behavioral tests approved by the FDA, popularly known as the Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics (ANAM). This includes finger tapping tests as a measure of motor function, a mathematical task to measure working memory, the ability to match to a sample that measures spatial memory, code substitution to measure delayed memory, and a go/no-go assay that measures recognition memory and perceptual decision making.

The authors reported significant improvement in performance in finger tapping, mathematical processing, delayed memory, and brain processing speed in individuals in the test group compared to those in the control group. None of the participants in the study reported any adverse effects to the treatment.

The mechanism of action of the therapeutic treatment remains unclear. However, Chazot said, “We know that infrared light of particular wavelengths can help alleviate nerve cell damage, amyloid load, and reduced blood flow in the brain, which are common in people with dementia.”

The researchers said the therapy can also increase levels of nitric oxide, and therefore blood flow in the brain by improving the flexibility of the membrane that lines the inside of blood vessels.

The PBM therapy delivers infrared light equivalent to 1,368 Joules of energy to the cranium during each six-minute treatment cycle. This, the researchers said can stimulate the synthesis of the body’s energy currency, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) known to be markedly decreased in patients with dementia.

“Current clinical practice can only set the stage for optimal recovery with little or no effect upon cellular function. Laboratory work exploring the mechanism of action of PBM-T1068, indicates this therapeutic tool may well help dying brain cells regenerate into functioning units once again,” said Dougal. “Much more research is needed to fully understand the mechanism of action.”

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