Scientists Say Light Therapy Boosts Brain Health. Here’s How
Red light therapy is gaining significant traction as a wellness-enhancing therapy, and it is becoming a go-to treatment for a wide range of ailments. Given its broad range of benefits, you may be wondering if light therapy is something that can help increase brain functions such as boosting memory, learning fast & processing complex problems quickly, treat psychological problems, or potentially support healing from stroke or traumatic brain injury (TBI). In this article, we’ll explore the effect of red light therapy on brain and the many ways it supports brain health.
Red light therapy, which is also known as photobiomodulation or low-level laser therapy, consists of a narrow spectrum of visible light, specifically red and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths. This particular spectrum of light has a powerful stimulating effect on the human body. It has been widely used to treat chronic skin conditions, reduce signs of aging, accelerate muscle recovery, ease joint pain, reduce inflammation, and boost the immune system.
Based on encouraging anecdotal repots, as well as clinical trials specific to red light’s effect on the brain, researchers believe red light may be useful in improving brain cell function. This, in turn, can enhance overall brain function, help treat psychiatric disorders, and accelerate healing from stroke or injury.
How Does Red Light Work?
Red light penetrates the skin at varying depths, and its therapeutic benefits occur at the cellular level. So, unlike medications that simply mask symptoms, red light works from inside out to promote health—including brain health.
Here are some examples of how the process works:
1. One of the primary benefits of red light therapy is improved metabolic cell functioning. When red and NIR light photons are absorbed by the body, they stimulate metabolic energy production in the mitochondria. Sometimes called cells’ “batteries,” mitochondria are the energy centers of cells, including brain cells (neurons) and even stem cells that are produced in bone marrow. When cells are energized, they function more efficiently.
2. Red light stimulates cerebral blood flow and increases brain oxygenation. This can help people with TBI recover from a condition known as neurovascular dysfunction, which can result in low brain oxygenation and slow healing.
3. Red light helps with neuroprotection, or protecting neurons from damage. This safeguards their survival and longevity, and slows cell apoptosis (cell dealth) due to inflammation.
4. Red light reduces oxidative stress on the brain and promotes blood flow, which can help counteract symptoms of major depressive disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.
5. Red light reduces inflammation, which is an immune defense against foreign bodies such as bacteria and viruses. Although acute inflammation is a necessary part of healing, chronic inflammation in the brain can have serious negative effects. Specifically, it is linked to many neurodegenerative diseases and even mood disorders. Red light reduces inflammation by modulating levels of both pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines, and by stimulating blood flow to help remove waste products and toxins from the affected area.
6. Red light stimulates the regrowth of neurons, which is a process known as neurogenesis. It also stimulates synaptogenesis (the formation of synapses between neurons), which influences the brain’s neuroplasticity (the brain’s natural ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections). This is especially helpful in cases of TBI where cognitive functions have been impaired. Red light therapy may be used as part of a comprehensive treatment program that includes behavioral and/or cognitive therapy.
7. Stimulation of stem cell production, which are the body’s master cells. These cells reside in an inactive state in bones and bone marrow throughout the body, ready to be mobilized as needed, usually in response to injury or other cases of cell death or dysfunction.
Use a High-Output LED Device for Optimal Red Light Absorption
In optimal conditions, red light is absorbed into the skin to a depth of about 5 to 10mm (.1 to .3 inches). That’s why it’s ideal for treating acne, eczema, psoriasis, fine lines and wrinkles, and even hair loss. But can infrared light penetrate the skull with any therapeutic effect?
In optimal conditions, NIR light penetrates as deeply as 5cm (nearly 2 inches), which is sufficient to reach the parts of the brain that are most commonly injured in accidents: the frontal lobes, which are immediately behind the forehead; and the temporal lobes, which lie beneath the temples.
Red Light Therapy Provides An Immense Variety of Brain BenefitsFrom enhancing mental sharpness and boosting memory to improving thinking skills, red light therapy can benefit the brain in innumerable ways. It has also proved to be beneficial for treating people who have sustained brain injuries, or suffer from degenerative brain disorders and certain mental illnesses.
Improved Brain FunctionWhen brain function is improved, it means faster learning, better memory retention and recall, and sharp thinking. There is a direct connection between enhanced brain function and specific brainwaves. For instance, great achievers in any field spend more time in alpha, theta, and delta brain activity during waking hours, while most people spend most of their waking hours in a beta state of brain activity.
Beta brainwaves are associated with normal awake/alert brain function that’s necessary for focused attention. However, beta is also associated with stress, overthinking, and often, a disconnect from intuition and creativity. It’s a logic-driven state of mind that often puts up a cognitive barrier against creative thinking.
Alpha brainwaves are associated with relaxed attention, such as when you’re absorbed in a complex task or enjoyable hobby. In alpha, creativity is less constrained by the “inner critic” so you are free to think creatively.
Theta brainwaves are associated with daydreaming, intuition, and creativity. Most people find themselves in an alpha state when they’re driving down a familiar stretch of road, lost in a daydream, and suddenly realize they’ve driven for miles without really paying attention to the act of driving. Theta activity is important for innovative thinking that is absolutely free of the constraints of logic or linear thought.
- Gamma brainwaves are associated with “high mind thinking,” or rapid and efficient communication between different parts of the brain along with superior synthesis and processing of data.
Red light therapy using the 830nm (NIR) wavelength has been shown to increase alpha, theta, and delta brainwave activity, and decrease beta brainwave activity. This is similar to the effects of deep meditation, which can have significant positive effects on cognitive functioning and is even known to slow or reverse aging-related neurodegenerative disorders.
Red light therapy also promotes increased activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions. These include focused attention; impulse control; setting and achieving goals; predicting, planning and anticipating; and coordinating sequences of actions. By combining red and NIR light, red light therapy helps regulate neuronal function, which stimulates cognitive function and emotional self-regulation.
In a 2013 study by University of Texas researchers, red/NIR light was applied to the foreheads of healthy participants. The researchers analyzed reaction time, memory, attention, and mood, and results were measurably superior compared to the control group. This study suggests that red light can be a non-invasive approach to improving brain function.
Treating TBI and Brain Disorders with NIR LightNIR is most often applied as a transcranial therapy (one in which light is passed through the skull) that shines light on the forehead to optimize absorption into brain tissue. This kind of treatment stimulates, regenerates, and preserves neurons and other brain tissue.
Studies on the effects of NIR light therapy on TBI are encouraging, showing promising results such as improved memory and learning, and reduction of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
Red Light for TBI and Chronic Traumatic EncephalopathyAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year emergency rooms throughout the United States see more than 2.5 million patients suffering from concussions and other TBIs. Symptoms can include amnesia (no memory of how the injury occurred), headaches, slurred speech, confusion, anxiety and depression, memory lapses, lack of impulse control, sleep disturbances, and even suicidal thoughts.
One type of brain injury is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a progressive neurodegenerative disease believed to develop from repeated head trauma. This disease has been closely connected to contact sports, such as football, rugby, soccer, and boxing, and may develop long after the head trauma occurred. CTE may also affect military veterans who have suffered a blast injury to the head.
These conditions and TBI are difficult to treat since some symptoms may appear right away and others can take weeks, months, or even years to manifest. Even mild TBI can become a chronic lifelong problem long after the person was injured. For example, neuroinflammation is thought to be a link between TBI and the subsequent development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease.
NIR light therapy shows great promise in healing TBI and CTE. But real effectiveness requires the use of equipment with enough energy to achieve the depth of penetration needed to affect brain tissue that is most often damaged during injuries. Studies have shown that light therapy with 660nm and 810nm wavelengths is the most effective at promoting significant improvements in cognitive function after a brain injury.
By increasing cellular energy (stimulation of ATP production in the mitochondria), as well as increasing cerebral blood flow, NIR light improves subnormal cellular activity of injured brain tissue following mild TBI.
In one study, participants treated with NIR light therapy reported improved sleep, improvements in cognitive performance, and fewer PTSD symptoms. One participant reported a restored ability to perform actions such as writing checks and paying bills for the first time since a motor vehicle accident that had occurred five years before.
Red and NIR Light Combat Cognitive DeclineCognitive decline is a major concern after TBI. A 2014 study by a team of researchers from Massachusetts found improvements in cognitive function after red/NIR treatments in patients suffering from chronic mild TBI. Improvements were seen in executive function, verbal learning, sleep, and when present, PTSD symptoms.
A study focused on Gulf War veterans found that brain damage caused by concussions from explosions, or by exposure to pesticides and other neurotoxins, impairs the mitochondria in brain cells. The researchers found that the veterans benefited from a treatment regimen of LED LLLT therapy using both red- and NIR light, combined with cognitive behavioral therapy.
Red Light and StrokesAccording to the CDC, each year more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke. Sometimes called “brain attacks,” strokes can cause lasting brain damage and long-term disability. Nearly 90% of strokes are ischemic strokes, in which blood flow to the brain is blocked.
In 2007 researchers from Israel conducted a clinical trial with patients who had suffered an ischemic stroke. Transcranial application of 810nm NIR light was applied to the heads of the patients. Significant and lasting improvements were noted even after only one treatment, and results were still evident 90 days later.
Strokes often affect basic motor functions. Some patients experience spasticity, which can cause pain and weakness. In a 2016 study, researchers from Brazil treated stroke patients with LLLT, and patients experienced reduced pain and increased time to onset of muscle fatigue. These findings suggest that red light therapy may contribute to increased (and normal) recruitment of muscle fibers and reduction of pain.
Animal studies and clinical trials have found notable results in treating stroke:
- Animal models: Suppression of nitric oxide activity was noted after irradiation with 660nm light; at 808nm, neurogenesis (regrowth of neurons) began within 24 hours after stroke, and there were improvements in behavioral performance and neurological function.
Clinical trials for acute stroke: 120 patients aged 40-85 who had suffered from ischemic stroke showed improvement in neurological deficits after irradiation with 810nm NIR light.
Treating Degenerative Disorders of the Brain with Red LightWith today’s aging population, age-related cognitive decline is becoming a more serious and widespread problem. Many people are interested in natural, non-invasive, and non-pharmaceutical therapies with no side effects, which makes red light therapy the ideal choice. Thus, red light therapy is growing in popularity as a potential therapeutic treatment to slow or even reverse age-related cognitive decline and age-related brain disorders.
Red Light and Age-related Cognitive Decline and Dementia, including Alzheimer’s DiseaseResearch has shown that a decrease in activity and quality of mitochondria in the brain is associated with normal aging. Brain studies suggest that mitochondrial function can be improved using NIR light—and this could be a game-changer for an aging population, especially those with a predisposition toward Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is a severe form of dementia for which NIR therapy shows great promise. In one study, patients with Alzheimer’s received NIR treatments and showed improvements in cognitive scores, better sleep, decreased anxiety, fewer emotional outbursts, and less wandering immediately after treatment. Four weeks after treatment, some decline was noted in the original treatment results; but these declines may be mitigated with follow-up (maintenance) treatments.
Treating Psychiatric Disorders with Red LightLight in general has long been used to treat psychiatric problems such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which affects about 5% of American adults, and major depression (non-seasonal), which is estimated to affect more than 7% of American adults. Current treatments include psychotherapy and antidepressants, although many depression sufferers are interested in a non-pharmaceutical treatment approach.
A 2018 study showed great potential for treating these depressive disorders with red and NIR light therapy, which proved to have antidepressant properties. In an eight-week trial, researchers found that light therapy had powerful antidepressant properties with little or no side effects.
NIR light therapy has also been found to successfully treat depression that was linked to TBI. One study involved 39 patients who were treated for TBI after providing self-assessments about their mild to severe depression. Treatment resulted in remission from depression in all but two patients, and their depression remained in remission for 55 months following a single treatment.
Depression is linked to sleep disorders, and red light therapy has been shown to improve sleep. During a study of female basketball players in China, the women were treated with red light. Participants showed improvement in sleep and an increase in natural melatonin, which aids with sleep and is notably deficient in people suffering from depression. Red light stimulates melatonin production, which helps improve sleep, and as a result, moods. Dr. Michael Hamblin of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University explains: “Your body will naturally produce melatonin from red light, and medical research from many clinical trials has shown improved sleep disorders from red light therapy.”
Red light helps with psychiatric disorders and even common insomnia.
How to Administer Red Light Therapy for Brain Injury
Treatment for any kind of brain injury or disorder should always be administered and supervised by a doctor. However, you can self-administer red/NIR light therapy in the comfort of your own home to improve cognitive functioning—and while you’re at it, treat aching joints, improve skin health, boost your immune system, and even lose weight.
It’s important to use a high-output LED therapy device that delivers the optimal wavelengths necessary for delivering the most significant therapeutic effects. PlatinumLED BIO series gives you a choice of 660nm red light, 850nm NIR light, or a combination of both. The BIOMAX series delivers a comprehensive multi-wavelength combination of the most therapeutic wavelengths of red/NIR light together for the most optimal healing spectrum available.
Heal and Improve Your Brain with Red Light
With this many research-backed, neurological benefits, you don't need your brain light to turn on to know it's definitely worth a shot. Moreover, red light therapy is a natural, safe, and non-therapeutic treatment that has shown immense promise in treatment of brain disorders, from TBI to depression. Although red light therapy should not be considered a cure, its cellular-level benefits can have a powerful ripple effect on your brain and body. Thus, do consult your physician before trying it on, to be on the safe side. Learn more about the PlatinumLED lights from our blogs to discover the many ways that red light is becoming a staple in natural self-care.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does red light do to the brain?
Ans: Red light can help increase- cerebral blood flow, neuroprotection, ATP energy production, and reduces inflammation.
Can infrared light penetrate the skull?
Ans: Near-infrared light therapy is capable of penetrating skulls to assist with brain injury trauma.
How does red light therapy help hair growth?
Ans: Low level lasers such as cold laser and red light therapy injects photons into the tissue of your scalp which in turn energizes the weak cells to promote hair growth.