A 6-minute treatment could improve memory and movement in dementia patients

DURHAM, United Kingdom — A new infrared light therapy that takes just minutes each day could help patients with dementia and other brain disorders improve their memory and movement, a new study reveals. Using a special helmet, the treatment may also be a breakthrough therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injuries, or motor neuron disease.

Researchers at Durham University found that the therapy improved memory, motor function, and processing skills. The team says the therapy helps boost blood flow in the brain, thereby opening up blood vessels so more oxygen can reach the white matter deep in the brain.

At the moment, this new technology won’t come cheap. Study authors note each helmet costs £7,250 ($9,953.52), but patients can complete the treatments at home. One healthy participant in the trial, with no history of any brain disease, says the helmet is easy to use. She wore the helmet for a period of three months, during which she kept it on for six minutes in the morning and six minutes at night — sometimes while watching TV.

“I have a bad memory to start with and I think as you get older it gets no better, so I thought I would give the therapy a go. I wasn’t sure it would make a difference, but to be honest I think it did. After a few weeks I noticed that my sleeping pattern was better, I felt more relaxed and I had more energy. I’m not a moody person, but my youngest daughter said that I wasn’t as moody and my manager at the time used to laugh and say that the therapy must be working because I didn’t need to write things down.” says 56-year-old participant Tracy Sloan in a university release.

How does the helmet work?

Scientists conducted verbal, memory, and motor skills tests on the participants before and after the therapy. The helmet works by sending infrared light from 14 fan-cooled LED light arrays deep into the brain at a wavelength of between 1,060 to 1,080 nanometers.

It delivers 1,368 joules of energy to the cranium during each treatment cycle, scientists explain. This helps generate most of the chemical energy needed to power cells’ biochemical reactions. This, in turn, leads to a rise in the level of an organic compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which noticeably drops in dementia patients. ATP provides energy to drive processes in living cells and help nerve cells to repair.

“My kids would look at me and say ‘what have you got on your head?’ but I thought if this helps me it is worth it. It was very light to wear and it could be plugged in while wearing it. I would love to use it again because it did help me without a doubt. If people are able to afford something like this and it makes your quality of life a lot better, I would say definitely give it a go,” Sloan adds.

Why is infrared light good for the brain?

All 14 study participants entered the trial as healthy adults over the age of 45, but experts believe the innovative treatment could help those suffering from a number of debilitating brain conditions. Researchers did not note any adverse side-effects of wearing the helmet.

“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. 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,” says study co-leader Dr. Paul Chazot of Durham University.

“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. 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, so could it be used as a game-changing multi-modal form of therapy? This could provide a novel disease-modifying strategy for dementia, with the potential to alleviate many of the serious problems faced by people with the disease and reduce the burden on their caregivers,” Dr. Chazot concludes.

The team published their work on transcranial photobiomodulation therapy in the scientific journal Photobiomodulation, Photomedicine, and Laser Surgery.

South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.