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  • Combating Darkness with Light

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2015

It is no secret that light can be one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal. So when an application comes along and gives that energy a specific purpose against the backdrop of our past and present international political climates – along with the experiences produced by them – attention must be paid. Teaming up with the VA Boston Healthcare System, Dr. Margaret Naeser at Boston University is leading a study to test the effects of LED light therapy on brain function in veterans with Gulf War Illness.

“We are applying a technology that’s been around for a while, but it’s always been used on the body, for wound healing, and to treat muscle aches and pains, and joint problems,” Naeser said. “We’re starting to use it on the brain.”

A staffer in Dr. Margaret Naeser’s lab demonstrates the equipment built especially for the research: an LED helmet, intranasal diodes and LED cluster heads placed on the ears.
A staffer in Dr. Margaret Naeser’s lab demonstrates the equipment built especially for the research: an LED helmet, intranasal diodes and LED cluster heads placed on the ears.


A cluster of medically unexplained chronic symptoms are associated with service in the Gulf War, including fatigue, headaches, insomnia, dizziness and memory problems, among others. LED light therapy boosts the output of nitric oxide, increasing blood flow in the brain. It also appears to have a positive effect on damaged brain cells, specifically their mitochondria. Naeser says brain damage caused by explosions or exposure to neurotoxins could impair those subunits.

Veterans in the study wear a helmet lined with LEDs that apply red and near-IR light to the scalp. Intranasal diodes deliver photons to the deeper parts of the brain, while LED cluster heads are fixed to the ears. The red and near-IR photons penetrate the skull and brain cells to spur production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cell’s energy chemical, allowing clearer, sharper thinking. One treatment takes about 30 minutes, generating neither heat nor pain. The therapy is still considered investigational and, as of yet, is not covered by most health insurance plans. However, it is already being used by some alternative medicine practitioners to treat wounds and pain.

“The light-emitting diodes add something beyond what’s currently available with cognitive rehabilitation therapy,” Naeser said. “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 post-traumatic stress disorder (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.”

A randomized, placebo-controlled trial is currently under way at the VA Boston Healthcare System’s Jamaica Plain campus; the first participant enrolled in January. Naeser and her team aim to assess 160 Gulf War veterans. The scientists hope their work will validate LED therapy as a viable treatment for veterans and those with cerebral issues.

“There are going to be many applications, I think,” Naeser said. “We’re just in the beginning stages right now.”


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