In the 2011 film Limitless, Bradley Cooper’s main character discovers a pill that can kick his brain into overdrive, allowing a man of average intelligence and athleticism not only to finish a novel in a day and master the stock market by night, but also employ split-second reactions and enhanced reflexes to maneuver his way out of a variety of different dicey situations.
Of course, in real-life physical and mental decline are simply part of aging, and the idea of an otherwise normal person amping up their brain’s cognitive functions to attain superior memory, processing and motor skills is merely science fiction.
Dubious results on brain games and other proposed cognitive enhancement techniques have tamped down initial enthusiasm about their potential, and things like memory exercises and “micro-dosing” hallucinogens have also shown debatable–if any–effectiveness.
Now, after twenty years of studying methods using the power of infra-red light to improve memory, motor function and other deteriorating mental capacities in dementia patients, a researcher from the U.K. has released the results of his latest pilot study that he and his co-author believe show how this same type of therapy can improve those same cognitive processes in otherwise healthy adults with normal intellectual function, essentially “supercharging” their normal brains like the pill in Limitless to previously unachievable heights.
“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,” said Dr. Paul Chazot from the Department of Biosciences at Durham University in a press release announcing the study’s results. And, says Chazot, these benefits come with zero reported side effects.
Background: Seeing the Light
Before this latest study, Dr. Chazot spent the last 20 years working to identify and validate a specific wave-length of infra-red light to treat dementia patients. This work culminated in a pre-clinical study that the press release indicates “showed for the first time that PBM-T (transcranial photobiomodulation therapy) with a specific wavelength improved memory performance, and reduced beta-amyloid – a membrane protein that normally plays an essential role in neural growth and repair, but which later in life can increase and destroy nerve cells leading to loss of thought and memory in Alzheimer’s disease.”
That work was followed up by a recently published study by Chazot and Dr. Gordon Dougal, who is also the second author on this latest study, that showed PBM-T had a “similar, profound and rapid positive effect on the condition for both men and women with mild to moderate 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,” said Dougal, explaining the motivations behind the latest study, “so [we asked] could it be used as a game-changing multi-modal form of therapy?”
Analysis: Supercharging the Brain with Light Therapy
To determine if this same type of light therapy could indeed “supercharge” the cognitive functions of otherwise healthy adults like the Limitless pill, Chazot and Douglas, whose work is published in the peer-reviewed journal Photobiomodulation, Photomedicine and Laser Surgery, enlisted 14 healthy people over the age of 45 and administered six minutes of PBM-T twice a day using a custom-built helmet that rests comfortably on top of the wearer’s head. These twice-daily sessions lasted for four weeks total. At the same time, 13 additional patients in a control group wore a “dummy” cap, while also undergoing the same twice a day, six-minute sessions for the same four-week period.
A series of motor skills, memory, and verbal tests were administered to both study groups before and after the treatments, then researchers compared the two to measure how much (if any) improvement was realized following the four weeks of infra-red light treatments. These included tests on finger tapping, mathematical processing, delayed memory, and brain processing speed.
Sure enough, after just four weeks of infra-red treatments at Dr. Chazot’s specific wavelength, and just like the previous dementia study participants, the healthy test subjects all showed significant increases in memory, motor function, and processing skills, while the control group pretty much stayed the same. In some cases, this improvement was as little as 5%; in others, it was as significant as a 20% improvement across a wide range of cognitive functions. Also, like the patients in the previous dementia study, the pilot study participants reported having more energy, an overall elevated mood, more involvement in physical activities, and less anxiety after the sessions with no negative side effects.
Although the exact mechanisms for the improved brain function in otherwise healthy adults are not completely understood, the research team was able to hone in on what they believe are the main underlying operators behind the series of successes using this type of therapy.
For instance, the release states that PBM-T therapy works, “by delivering infrared light from 14 fan-cooled LED light arrays deep into the brain, focused by the skull, at a wavelength of between 1,060 to 1,080 nanometres delivering 1,368J of energy to the cranium during each six-minute treatment cycle.”
This blast of infra-red light deep into the brain, the study explains, “stimulates the mitochondria that 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), markedly decreased in dementia patients, that provides the energy to drive processes in living cells and help nerve cells to repair.”
The study also notes that this therapy can increase nitric oxide levels in the brain, “improving the flexibility of the membrane that lines the inside of blood vessels.” This improvement, the study notes, “opens up blood vessels so more oxygen can reach the white matter deep in the brain.”
Still, Dougal cautions, even with their impressive pilot study results “much more research is needed to fully understand the mechanism of action.”
Outlook: Innovative Light Therapy on the Horizon
In the study’s conclusion, the researchers note that given its overall benefit to brain functions, as well as the potential to bring otherwise dead brain cells back to working condition, this specific treatment might also be beneficial to people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury or other motor neuron diseases.
“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,” concluded Chazot.
“This could provide a novel disease-modifying strategy for dementia, with the potential to alleviate many of the serious problems faced by people with dementia and reduce the burden on their caregivers.”
Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction