Light Therapy: A New Tool for Managing Parkinson's
Last updated: June 2022
Near infrared light (NIr), a low level laser or LED (light emitting diode) is a new neuroprotective approach being tested in labs for use in treating Parkinson's disease and numerous other diseases and conditions such as Alzheimer's, stroke, and ALS. It is a "repair-oriented" therapy aimed at stabilizing defective neurons.
Parkinson's disease (PD) is a chronic, progressive, neurodegenerative disorder that initially affects motor symptoms including tremor, rigidity, and slowness of movement. Cognitive changes generally occur later in the disease progression and do not affect everyone with PD. Neurodegeneration is the progressive failure and subsequent death of neurons in the brain. As more neurons die, the effects impact daily life. The death of these brain cells in Parkinson's causes a decrease in dopamine production, which helps to control movement and speech.1
First line treatment for PD is generally by drug therapy using dopamine replacement medications. Once the right dose for each person is established the medication generally does a good job of controlling the symptoms of Parkinson's. Over time, however; the effects of the drugs often are no longer sufficient to manage the symptoms. Side effects can develop along with disease progression. PD treatment traditionally has been to manage symptoms, not to modify the disease by slowing or stopping it or to create any neuroprotections.1
Light therapy and Parkinson's
NIr therapy works by using infrared illumination to treat brain tissue affected by a lack of oxygen, toxic environments, and mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondria help to produce energy in cells and play a role in regulating cell function when working properly. NIr attempts to reduce cell damage and death by protecting the dopamine-producing neurons.2 NIr has been shown to reduce tissue inflammation and improve mitochondrial function.
It is not a targeted therapy because it works on the neural symptoms of many conditions by reducing the neurodegenerative process. Light therapy targets the brain and therefore it is likely to impact multiple facets of neural functioning. Studies have yielded results that show improvement in cognitive, emotional, and executive function.
Photobiomodulation is the ability of light to modulate biological processes at a cellular level.4 The use of controlled exposure of red to infrared wavelengths of light have successfully improved healing, reduced inflammation and pain. It has done this by improving mitochondrial function and stimulating antioxidant pathways in the brain. Photobiomodualtion has been therapeutically effective to improve the recovery rate for other medical conditions, and has shown promise in the lab for people and animals with PD.
Strategic use of specific light applied at a targeted time of day for a specific length of time should be able to "attack" melatonin, and reduce it, thus restoring dopamine balance.5
Aids daytime sleepiness and other sleep disorders
Humans rest and wake based on a daily cycle called the circadian rhythm. Both light and melatonin play a role in the regularity of the cycle. Many people with PD suffer from sleep disturbances. It is thought that NIr may play a role in improving healthy sleep patterns.3
People with Parkinson's often experience excessive daytime sleepiness, general fatigue, nighttime sleep disturbances, and depression all of which can affect healthy sleep and the circadian rhythm. According to research reported in the February 2017 JAMA Neurology Journal, light therapy significantly reduced daytime sleepiness, improved sleep quality, decreased overnight awakenings, improved daytime alertness and activity level, and improved motor symptoms in people with Parkinson's.6
Different kinds of light therapy have been used effectively for other sleep, psychiatric, and medical conditions for decades. NIr continues to be studied in the clinical setting in order to determine how it can best be applied in treating Parkinson's and other medical conditions. Long-term, large scale controlled studies will help to better evaluate the efficacy of NIr as way to mitigate symptoms as well as possibly slow or limit or reverse disease progression.
The exact reasons the impact light has on the inner workings of the brain is not known, but early results demonstrate success in healing, protecting, and activating different neuronal pathways. Specific light appears to improve the survival of the normal cells. This is considered neuroprotective and could hold real promise in advances in the study of Parkinson's disease, which today still has no known cause or cure.7
Is it available to me?
There are infrared light sources on the market that you can buy in a specialty store or on the internet. These however, are not the same as the light sources that are used in a clinical study environment. They may or may not prove helpful to people with Parkinson's suffering from sleep disturbances, and should only be used after seeking input from your physician.
Talk to your doctor about NIr light therapy
If you think NIr might be right for you, talk to your neurologist about it. There might be local resources or clinical trials near you that are open for participation. Your doctor can explain in greater detail how NIr works and why it would, or would not, be appropriate for you.
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