Parkinson’s disease is a combination of movement disorders including tremor, muscle rigidity, impaired balance and slowness of movement. It can also cause neurological problems such as depression, poor sleep, memory loss and confusion. Its cause remains a mystery but it is known to be associated with dopamine depletion and loss of neurons in the basal ganglia region of the brain.
The current mainstay of treatment involves physical therapy as well as medications which act to increase dopamine levels in the brain. These medications can provide significant improvements but their effectiveness tends to wear off with time, and they can cause a number of side effects. In addition, they treat the symptoms only, without actually slowing, or reversing, the natural course of the disease.
One avenue of research that has shown unexpected promise is red and infrared light therapy, with a number of studies showing that it may decrease the level of damage and improve motor function in animal testing for Parkinson’s disease.
Retired Tasmanian Federal Politician Max Burr is a sufferer of Parkinson’s who tried light therapy after reading a research paper published by The Sydney University’s Professor John Mitrofanis on the use of photobiomodulation – the term used for light’s ability to modulate key biological processes at a cellular level – in animal testing for Parkinson’s.
“The paper showed that the use of 670-nanometre red light was protective of neurons in Parkinson’s,” Burr said. “So I sent Professor Mitrofanis an email and said, ‘Look, this is all very interesting, I wouldn’t mind having a crack at it’.”
Even though Mitrofanis believed the laboratory results on light therapy showed promise, he had no choice but to tell Burr that all the work was pre-clinical, and he couldn’t recommend it to humans yet.
Aware that his condition was not going to wait while scientists went through the long process of obtaining approval for human trials, Burr went ahead and built a homemade device from an aluminium-foil-covered lampshade lined with strips of LED bulbs that emitted red light at a wavelength of 670 nanometres. Once completed he started using the device on his head for twenty minutes twice a day.
Burr’s description of what happened is remarkable. “I recovered my sense of smell, my writing is now firm and concise, my gait has improved and I can climb stairs,” he says. “From week to week, it might have only been a subtle change, but the cumulative effect over the months has been quite significant.”
For sceptics, it is certainly possible that Burr’s improvement is at least partially due to the placebo effect. This is especially the case in Parkinson’s, where some placebo treatments have been shown to actually increase the release of dopamine in the brain.
Burr, however, believes there are physiological reasons behind his improvement. “The benefits of the light must be being transferred by a mechanism in the body – either by the vascular system or by the immune system,” he says.
Dr Daniel Johnstone, a medical scientist and lecturer at The University of Sydney’s medical research centre the Bosch Institute, agrees with Burr’s reasoning.
“The exact mechanisms are still not totally known, but we do know that there’s a key enzyme in the cells that absorbs light at certain wavelengths and triggers this intracellular cascade signalling that seems to collectively lead to a protective effect,” he explains. “Light is actually a low-level stress to the cells, and when you deliver this stress, it either stimulates repair processes or it conditions the cells to upregulate a whole lot of stress-response systems that conditions that tissue against a more severe insult down the line.”
His supervisor at the Bosch Institute is executive director Professor Jonathan Stone. “It is clear to me that the pace of studies on photobiomodulation is increasing exponentially,” Stone says. “Despite a lot of scepticism, people are being drawn into it by the fact that it works. There’s growing evidence that it works against depression and stroke and in the cognitive aspects of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Encouragingly there have been no known complications from the use of red and infrared light therapy in humans.
“Given the huge health impact of Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and how safe and easily administered light treatment is, I didn’t see what we had to lose by pursuing further research in this area,” Johnstone says. “There’s no guarantee that it will work yet, but I can pretty much guarantee that it’s not going to cause any harm.”
Burr’s geriatrician, Frank Nicklason, is a staff specialist at the Royal Hobart Hospital. He sees many patients with Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions. Although he advises prudence he provides research information about light therapy to some of his patients. To his knowledge around a dozen have given it a try.
“Changes are often subtle and tend to be noticed by spouses,” Nicklason said. “Changes that have been reported include a better sense of wellbeing, better sleep, less anxiety and improved mental clarity. Given that non-motor symptoms like anxiety, depression and confusion are major drivers of reduced quality of life, even minor improvements are likely to be valuable.”
Surfers Health Practice Principal Dr Mark Jeffery has been using lasers in his surgery for more than four years. He says the research supports the use of light therapy for a wide range of diseases including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression and chronic pain.
“The reality is there are no real side effects from low level laser therapy and it’s one of the safest treatments you can ever do,” he says.
Burr has been using light therapy for more than three years now and has not required any increase in his anti-Parkinson’s medications. In the meantime his LED unit has received an upgrade. “We’ve made it out of a bucket,” he said. “We’ve also added 810-nanometre lights as well as the 670-nanometre lights. Both LED wavelengths have their own switch. So I do 15 minutes on one wavelength and then 15 minutes on the other.”
Mitrofanis is optimistic about the long-term future of red and infrared light therapy. A career-defining moment came for him when he travelled to Tasmania to meet Burr and other Parkinson’s patients with whom he had been corresponding with.
“It was a wonderful experience,” he said, recalling the emotional meeting where those affected by neurodegenerative disorders shared their stories about how light therapy had improved their lives. “No one can say the light treatment has completely reversed all their symptoms, but they’re all showing signs of improvement.”
- The non-abridged version of this article titled “Let There Be Light” was first published in The Weekend Australian Magazine.
- Read Professor John Mitrofanis’s paper titled “Why and how does light therapy offer neuroprotection in Parkinson’s disease”, here.
- A clinical trial to test the effectiveness of light therapy for Parkinson’s patients led by The University of Sydney’s Dr Ann Liebert is currently underway.
Suvi Mahonen is a Surfers Paradise-based journalist. Her work appears in The Australian, HuffPost, Mamamia and other health and lifestyle publications. Follow her on Facebook and online art-selling platform Redbubble
Photo credit: Chris Crerar for The Weekend Australian Magazine