Photobiomodulation is therapeutic for a spectrum of brain conditions. Research shows it is helpful for traumatic brain injury, for Alzheimer’s, for Parkinson’s, and for depression. There is also reason to believe it’s effective for seasonal affective disorder and for ADHD. But “photobiomodulation for the brain” implies something more than therapy. It suggests enhancing higher brain functions: cognition, memory, sensory processing, and so forth. Can photobiomodulation (PBM to its regular users) make you smarter? The evidence is still a little sparse, but nevertheless exciting.
How PBM Works
Most researchers attribute PBM’s results to improved blood flow in the brain, additional and better use of oxygen, and an increase in the cellular fuel ATP. But Michael R. Hamblin, who published an important paper on PBM and the brain in 2016, suggests otherwise. He says PBM’s effects are too long-lasting to be explained by those processes. Instead, he believes PBM works by “activation of signaling pathways and transcription factors that cause changes in protein expression.” I don’t have a doctorate in physiology, and I’m in no position to determine which is the more valid approach.
But I was impressed with Hamblin’s review of existing research. Mouse studies showed improved maze running abilities after PBM, as well as the prevention of reemergence of “extinguished conditioned fear responses.” In other words, it made mice braver. Human studies, on the other hand, showed PBM led to measurable improvement in several areas. There were “a psychomotor vigilance task (PVT), a delayed match-to-sample (DMS) memory task, and the positive and negative affect schedule (PANAS-X) to show improved mood.” Furthermore, another clinical study demonstrated improvement in human executive function.
Photobiomodulation for the Brain
Hamblin is still a driving force in the effort to determine PBM’s effect on the brain. He and his colleague Ying-Ying Huang have edited a book called Photobiomodulation in the Brain (Academic Press), published in July of this year. (Both Hamblin and Huang are attached to the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.) The book collects research reports and papers from all over the world, including 14 chapters on animal studies and 19 chapters on clinical research.
Most of the human research on PBM and the brain has been performed with LED-lined helmets, some with nasal probes. We don’t offer LED-lined helmets here at Peak, just full-body PBM. I can’t imagine an LED-lined helmet offers a particular advantage over a PBM bed such as the one we use. It might get the light source a little bit closer to the brain. But the point of PBM is that the light wavelengths we use are capable of noninvasive penetration to a depth of a few inches or more. So I think wavelength might be more important than proximity. My personal opinion is that whole-body PBM provides both the cellular benefit to your entire body and whatever possible cognitive enhancements the process offers.
What Can PBM Do for You?
Will PBM help you ace your next physics test or make better management decisions? I don’t know. But I can say that PBM has no bad side effects and that most people arise from the PBM bed feeling alert and energized. I can also say that we have very few clients who opt for a single PBM session. Most people who start it come back regularly because they like what it does for them.
See if it does it for you, too. Book a PBM session or two.