Light Therapy & Brain Health: Can it Help Your Memory, Mood, and Learning? 

The brain is one of the most astonishing organs in the human body. It only weighs about 3 pounds, and those 3 pounds are exactly what makes us intelligent creatures capable of thinking, writing, theorizing, or questioning the purpose of life. 

Like any other organ or part of the human body, the brain, too, is susceptible to injuries or declining functions, especially as we grow older. A healthy diet, physical exercise, and improving your blood pressure, blood sugar, or blood cholesterol levels are some of the ways through which you can maintain a healthier, younger brain10

Mentally stimulating activities are vital to keeping the brain young. Different brain activities, such as solving puzzles, math problems, or anything that may require at least some cognitive effort, contributes to the maintenance of the brain’s neural plasticity10

Neural plasticity is the ability of the central nervous system (CNS) to adapt to changes in the environment, aging, trauma, or injuries. It’s an important brain process in which neural networks work together to build a more resilient nervous system and maintain its proper functioning17,20

Research suggests that Light Therapy, which is in its clinical infancy and is the future of medicine, can also benefit your brain’s health, especially towards boosting the brain’s cognitive functions (such as its ability to remember and learn)19,7

The brain can suffer from numerous disorders that can be divided into:

  • Traumatic events such as stroke, traumatic brain injury and global brain ischemia;
  • Aging-related degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or dementia;
  • Psychiatric and mood disorders, including schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression9.

According to Dr. Michael Hamblin, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and an avid researcher on the topic of Light Therapy and brain healing, all of these apparently distinct conditions can be addressed with Light Therapy treatment9. He is not alone in his research, however.

How Does Light Therapy Improve Brain Health and Cognitive Function? 

When you apply a Light Therapy device on the head, precise red and near-infrared wavelengths of light travel through the skull and are being absorbed in the brain. This helps damaged brain cells or tissue affected by events such as stroke to replenish and heal9

Light Therapy achieves this primarily through stimulating mitochondrial activity to boost ATP energy production, decrease inflammation and oxidative stress, and increase other cellular activities that strengthen the brain. Through Light Therapy, mitochondria absorb light and enhance cell functions in meaningful ways to achieve brain regeneration and protection11

Light Therapy & Brain Healing Possibilities 

Improved reaction time, memory and mood 

The first placebo-controlled study to demonstrate some of the benefits of Light Therapy treatments on the human brain was performed in 2013. Multiple improvements were observed among participants who received Light Therapy compared to the placebo group1. Light therapy participants experienced: 

  • Quicker reaction time, proved with the sustained-attention psychomotor vigilance task (PVT) that measured the speed by which study participants responded to visual stimulus1.
  • Better memory, proved by the delayed match-to-sample (DMS) memory task, where the outcome measures included measuring readiness for a quick response and the number of correct trials1, 8.
  • Improved mood, as Light Therapy helped participants to sustain more positive emotional states. The mood was measured by the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS), a clinical survey that measures feelings and emotions. The participants were asked to fill the form in before and two weeks after having a treatment1,23.

The intriguing findings of this study prompted clinicians to find out what other cognitive benefits and brain healing benefits Light Therapy is capable of. For example: 

Can Light Therapy help us avoid brain surgery?

Can Light Therapy minimize the intake of risky drugs such as those prescribed for psychiatric conditions that have rather unpleasant side effects?

Perhaps we don’t yet have comprehensive answers on such complex questions, but research after research has continued to prove that Light Therapy works in favor of brain healing and mood improvement. 

Light Therapy against Cognitive Decline 

In a more recent study effort, researchers treated older adults who were at risk of cognitive decline with Light Therapy. A positive neurocognitive effect was observed among the participants in this study, all of whom aged between 49 and 9019. Some of the participants also struggled with cognitive decline due to vascular disease, however, Light Therapy was effective regardless of the nature of their cognitive decline19

As Light Therapy helped the elderly participants boost cognitive scores, researchers on the team were also able to observe their increased brain waves power (alpha, beta, and gamma brain waves in their resting state)19

Brain waves are a measure of electrical activity produced by the brain21. Communication between neurons is what generates all thoughts, moods, and behaviors21. Critically, Alpha waves are associated with the brain’s power of being present in the here and now. Beta waves are associated with attention, focus, and cognitive performance. Gamma waves are associated with information (coming from outside and inside the body) processing21

In relation to cognitive decline and vascular disease, researchers measured the participants’ carotid intima-media thickness (CIMT). That is a test to check the plaque buildup in the walls of arteries that bring blood to the head15. Increased CIMT values are an indicator of vascular disease presence. Cognitive performance, age, and CIMT were all found to be highly correlated19

Combating age-related cognitive decline with Light Therapy has been in the focus of another recent study, published in February 2019. This study examined the frontal brain functions among elderly men. Frontal brain functions are key to directing behavior. The participants were divided into two groups, treatment, and placebo. Those who received treatment indeed showed improved cognitive performance following the treatment. These results demonstrate that Light Therapy can really work as a safe manner to treat age-related cognitive decline7.

Light Therapy and Executive Function 

As of 2017, we also know that Light Therapy can improve the brain’s executive function. This is your ability to manage time, pay attention, change focus, plan, organize, multitask, remember details, or avoid saying the wrong thing at the wrong time3. In other words, the ability to create and meet goals.

As research further suggests, Light Therapy helped study participants to better perform in the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task (WCST)4. This is a neurophysiological test where the task-takers are asked to match a set of cards presented to them, in an attempt to assess their ability to demonstrate cognitive flexibility–a key process in cognitive ability. They are not told how to match the cards, but only if their particular match is correct or not24. The WCST is a clinical way to measure the brain’s executive function. Those participants who received Light Therapy made fewer errors on the task and demonstrated improved set-shifting ability compared to the control group4

Such results suggest that Light Therapy improves the brain’s executive function and may have intriguing potentials for treating or preventing deficits resulting both from aging or neuropsychological disorders which include conditions such as epilepsy, stroke, migraines, brain tumors, dementia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s among others. 

Can Light Therapy Improve Your Ability to Learn?  

The answer is positive on this one, too. 

In 2017, scientists tested 118 people to see if Light Therapy can have a meaningful impact on their learning abilities. In a similar fashion to previous research, the participants were divided into treatment and placebo group. Light Therapy showed that the treatment group improved their learning capabilities5.

During the trial, the Light Therapy device was directed at the lateral prefrontal cortex of participants, and following treatments, they experienced faster and better rule-based learning5. So, imagine had all participants been bartenders demanded to know the exact ingredients of Mojito, Bloody Mary, Margarita, and other essential cocktails. This Light Therapy treatment would have aided their ability to remember all the ingredients needed for fashioning each drink, adding each ingredient in the desired sequence or remember who on the table ordered a stronger Bloody Mary. We demonstrate this type of ability through our brain’s rule-based learning capacity. 

Different life events may inhibit our brain’s ability to learn. Aging certainly is one of them. Other reasons may include extended exposures to pesticides or neurotoxins, which impair the mitochondria in brain cells. Since Light Therapy kind of “exercises” the mitochondria and prompts the brain to forge new neural networks, the process itself acts as a cognitive rehabilitation6. Which also leads us to the next section. 

Light Therapy and Traumatic Brain Injuries 

Cognitive decline may occur due to traumatic brain injuries, too. A person who suffers from one may face memory or concentration problems, mood swings, depression, anxiety, or speech problems among other TBI manifestations18. What gives hope is another batch of studies that attests to the positive cognitive benefits among TBI patients from receiving Light Therapy12,13

Light Therapy has been shown to stimulate the growth of new nerve tissue and synapses in damaged brain cells, thus improving the cognitive brain functions of those patients who not only suffer from TBI but also from Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)12,13. The latter is a degenerative brain disease prevalent among athletes and military veterans or anyone who presents with a history of repetitive brain trauma22

Read more on how Light Therapy can help people with TBI in our article here

Light Therapy and Age-Related Neurological Disorders 

Last but not least, testing Light Therapy on diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s has as well catered encouraging results to medical experts. The first two double-blind, placebo-controlled human trials concerning Light Therapy and patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s and Light Therapy were issued in 2017. The research revealed that Light Therapy treated patients did show progress when it came to their:

  • Executive brain function;
  • Their memory and ability to recall; 
  • Visual attention and task switching;
  • Or performance on the clock-drawing test (which asks dementia patients to place the numbers in the clock and set the time to 11:10).

No adverse effects from the Light Therapy were reported among dementia/AD patients2,16.

We are merely at the beginning of understanding the full of benefits from applying Light Therapy on the brain. Or, in the words of Dr. Hamblin, the beneficial effects of Light Therapy on the brain are much broader than it has been initially considered. scope

As researchers around the world are upgrading our understanding of how Light Therapy works on any part of the human body (brain included) we take care to present those latest findings and bring you the latest developments related to the world of Light Therapy at the Light Lounge Resource Center.

If you feel like you need a consultation regarding Light Therapy treatment, reach out to our Facebook or Twitter page, or book your FREE appointment here. Our team will be happy to reach out to you. 

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