Reversing Alzheimer's With Light Therapy

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

Story at-a-glance -

  • A trial is underway using a headset with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to shine light into the brain via the nose and skull in patients with Alzheimer’s disease
  • Early results showed patients regained memory and reading and writing skills after three months of treatment, leading to the launch of a 12-week trial
  • The headset, known as Neuro RX Gamma, uses near infrared pulsed at gamma frequency into the brain region known as the hippocampus, which controls memory
  • In the early trial, dementia patients had improved cognitive function and sleep as well as reduced anxiety, wandering and angry outbursts, with no negative side effects
  • Photobiomodulation works, in part, by boosting mitochondria, the powerhouse of your cells, which in turn stimulates microglia, or immune cells, in the brain, helping to ward off the disease

In the U.S., 5.8 million Americans aged 65 years and older have Alzheimer’s disease, and this number is expected to jump to about 14 million by 2050.1 Every 65 seconds, someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with the disease, which has no known cure and limited treatments to help manage symptoms.

While conventional medicine has focused on drugs to treat symptoms, most have only limited effectiveness. Alzheimer’s has steadily ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., but some estimates suggest Alzheimer’s deaths may be underreported, possibly making it the third leading cause of death for older people.2

Effective treatments are urgently needed, and one such therapy known as photobiomodulation is offering hope in helping patients to regain their memory by shining light into the brain.

Light Therapy May Reverse Alzheimer’s Symptoms

A trial is underway using a headset with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to shine light into the brain via the nose and skull in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Early results showed patients regained memory and reading and writing skills after three months of treatment, leading to the launch of a 12-week trial.

The headset, known as Neuro RX Gamma, uses near infrared waves pulsed into the brain region known as the hippocampus, which controls memory. It’s believed to work by boosting mitochondria, the powerhouse of your cells, which produce about 90% of the energy being generated in your body.

This, in turn, stimulates microglia, or immune cells, in the brain, helping to ward off the disease. Microglia sometimes become inactive in people with Alzheimer’s disease, allowing amyloid plaques to accumulate and interfering with brain function. The light treatment may help to combat this.3

The trial, which is being conducted by researchers from the University of Toronto, involves 228 people, half of whom will receive light therapy via the Neuro RX Gamma headset six days a week for 20 minutes a day over a period of 24 weeks. The headset sends light through the skull as well as through the nostril via a nasal clip.

Neuro RX Gamma “delivers low-energy near-infrared light, through five diodes, to the brain transcranially and intranasally,”4 and was invented by Lew Lim, Ph.D., whom I interviewed in the video above. He told The Telegraph:5

“Photobiomodulation introduces the therapeutic effect of light into our brain. It triggers the body to restore its natural balance or homeostasis. When we do that, we call upon the body's innate ability to heal. Based on early data, we are confident of seeing some measure of recovery in the symptoms not just a slowdown in the rate of decline, even in moderate to severe cases.”

In the early trial, which involved five people with mild to moderate dementia to test safety of the device, symptoms improved significantly.6 Along with improvements in memory, participants had improved cognitive function and sleep as well as reduced anxiety, wandering and angry outbursts, with no negative side effects. Brain scans further revealed improved blood flow and connectivity in the brain.7

Advertisement
Click here to learn moreClick here to learn more

How Photobiomodulation Improves Brain Activity

A photostimulation device invented by Lim, which emits near-infrared light (810 nanometers), helps to explain how photostimulation affects the brain.

The near-infrared device consists of four modules of LEDs, held together with light metal frames that are placed on top of your head, with the LEDs pointed at specific regions on your scalp. It also has an intranasal LED that targets the hippocampal area. In alpha mode, these LEDs emit pulsed light at 10 hertz or 10 pulses per second.

Ten hertz was the frequency selected based on animal studies showing it helps accelerate neuron recovery in brain injured animals. The mechanism of the effect created by this photostimulation device appears to be related to the interaction between the light and mitochondria to produce cellular energy, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and other activating factors.

However, with Neuro RX Gamma, Lim introduced gamma frequency, which is 40 hertz (40 cycles per second) into the brain. Gamma is present while your brain is consolidating memory, helping it to minimize or prevent overactivity. Animal research has shown the gamma frequency even significantly reduces amyloid plaques (associated with Alzheimer's) in the brain.8

Benefits of Brain Photobiomodulation

The Canadian biotech firm Vielight, which developed the Neuro RX Gamma, explains that brain photobiomodulation works by delivering photons to a light-sensitive enzyme known as cytochrome c oxidase (COO) within mitochondria.9

Ultimately, Alzheimer's is a disease caused by dysfunctional mitochondria. That's the reason why near-infrared works. It recharges your mitochondria, and the COO specifically. According to Vielight, brain photobiomodulation may enhance cognition, provide neuroprotective effects and enhance self-repair mechanisms.10

Brain photobiomodulation has been found to increase cerebral blood flow11 as well as modulate brain oscillations. As noted in the journal Scientific Reports:12

“The effect of PBM [photobiomodulation] on mitochondrial function is the most well investigated mechanism of its potential therapeutic effects. PBM has been demonstrated to increase the activity of complexes in the electron transport chain of mitochondria, including complexes I, II, III, IV and succinate dehydrogenase.

In particular, increased activity of the transmembrane protein complex IV, also known as the enzyme cytochrome c oxidase, during PBM results in increased ATP production.

Furthermore, PBM results in activation of signaling pathways and transcription factors resulting in increased expression of genes related to protein synthesis, cell migration and proliferation, anti-inflammatory signaling, anti-apoptotic protein and antioxidant enzymes.”

An At-Home Alzheimer’s Treatment?

Brain photobiomodulation represents a potential at-home treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, while similar devices that may support brain health are already available over-the-counter. The early study into Lim’s device found that when the therapy was stopped, the patients began to decline, which is why, as Lim explained, the idea is to make the treatment as simple and accessible as possible.

If the device proves to work for Alzheimer’s, it represents a simple tool that can be used daily for a lifetime if necessary, with no visits to a health care clinic required. Lim said in our interview:

That's the idea behind my invention. It's to make it as simple as possible. You'll just press the button and that's it. The treatment is 20 minutes. You can do it the rest of your life because you just put it on your head and your hands are free. You can go to bed with it. That's really the principle behind it.

Until the planned clinical trials are complete, we cannot tell how well the devices work for Alzheimer's. In the meantime, they are available as low-risk, general wellness devices."

The Sunlight Connection

Sunlight is a beneficial electromagnetic frequency that is essential and vital for your health in its own right. One of the reasons why is because about 40% of the rays in sunlight is infrared, and the red and near-infrared frequencies increase CCO.13

When you eat, the nutrients nourish your cells and provide fuel for biological functions. You may know that the food you eat is converted to generate ATP. But the mechanism of ATP production can also be stimulated in response to near-infrared exposure, which triggers the mitochondria to produce additional ATP. So, it could be said that your body is fueled by both food and sunlight.

Unfortunately, few clinicians have any idea that light is a powerful fuel for your body. In my view, this ignorance is one of the reasons why Alzheimer's disease is skyrocketing in prevalence, as so many are routinely avoiding sensible sun exposure.

In fact, people living in northern latitudes have higher rates of death from dementia and Alzheimer's than those living in sunnier areas suggest that vitamin D and/or sun exposure are important factors.14

When asked for feedback on using sunlight or a near-infrared lamp as a preventive strategy for Alzheimer’s, Lim says:

"I think the sun is great. Probably the best … as long as you don't get overexposed to ultraviolet (UV) … I think that's really the most natural … The lamp, I tend to put safety first so I try to keep it as low power as possible, as long as it activates what it does.

When you have near-infrared (as it penetrates quite deeply), you don't need a lot of power … [E]xperiments have found that 810 nanometers go the deepest in the live tissues. Why is that? It's because as you go beyond 810 nm, it gets absorbed by water more and more."

Eye Test May Detect Alzheimer’s Disease

Another study is in the works that’s looking at using an inexpensive eye test called a retinal screening test to detect Alzheimer’s years before symptoms develop. The $5-million study will help reveal whether a simple eye exam that could be administered by optometrists and ophthalmologists could screen for retinal biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease.

Currently, Alzheimer’s may be detected via expensive PET scans to reveal buildup of amyloid plaque in the brain, but this test is often not covered by insurance. Researchers have found that beta-amyloid plaques also accumulate in the retina, and this buildup closely matches the buildup found in the brain. As noted in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience:15

“As a projection of the central nervous system (CNS), the retina has been described as a ‘window to the brain’ and a novel marker for AD [Alzheimer’s disease]. Low cost, easy accessibility and non-invasive features make retina tests suitable for large-scale population screening and investigations of preclinical AD.”

A retinal screening test for Alzheimer’s could help identify people at the earliest stages of the disease to help slow disease progression and improve treatment.16

Alzheimer’s Risk Factors You Can Control

Brain photobiomodulation is an exciting field that may soon prove to be a useful tool for Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment. A novel treatment developed at MIT using flickering lights and low frequency sound to stimulate gamma frequencies in the brain also appears to reduce plaque formation.17

In the meantime, there are many other strategies that get to the root of the disease as well, like exercise to increase brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), stress reduction, optimizing your sleep, which is critical for cognitive function, and nutritional support.

Getting your body to burn fat as its primary fuel will very effectively fuel and nourish your mitochondria in addition to radically improving insulin resistance. I recommend a cyclical or targeted ketogenic diet for this purpose, and the details are spelled out in my book, "Fat for Fuel."

There is hope that one day there will be a cure for Alzheimer’s, but until that day comes there’s a lot you can do to minimize your risk using diet and other lifestyle factors. In addition to light therapy, cleaning up your diet is among the best strategies to preserve your brain function as you age.