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Photobiomodulation for Autism

Week after week in this blog I offer suggestions for managing different conditions with the services of Peak Recovery & Health Center. Migraines? Try float therapy. High blood pressure? Try infrared sauna. Arthritis? Try cryotherapy. There are so many conditions and they are so varied that you must think I am joking at times. But photobiomodulation (PBM) for autism is no joke.

There is real clinical research on photobiomodulation and autism going on right now. It doesn’t get the same amount of attention as anti-vaxxer celebrities. But it is a great deal less paranoid, and there’s more science behind it than the misinformation that continues to haunt people with autism.

Autism’s Nature and Extent

The CDC’s 2020 report on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) said that the autism rate among children eight years of age is 1.85%. This is a dramatic increase over the past two decades, but the CDC cannot say whether the increase is from better detection, an increase in cases, or both. Detection is improving because of increased awareness of ASD. In addition, a lot more people are looking for it than ever before. Nearly everyone recognizes that early diagnosis and treatment is the most effective way to manage the condition.

There are no simple explanations for autism. In the words of the CDC report, “To date, the causes of autism are not completely understood but studies show that both environment and genetics may play a role.” There are no clinical tests for diagnosis, but some clinicians are skilled at diagnosing it through observation of behavior. That is remarkable, when you think about it, since the behavioral effects of autism can be quite varied. They include difficulty in social communication and interaction skills and restricted or repetitive behaviors and interests, as well as a laundry list of cognitive, emotional, psychological, behavioral, and even gastro-intestinal issues.

Clinical Research with Photobiomodulation

Most clinical research is only capable of focusing on a small slice of the ASD experience. But some of it is beginning to show results. A study in 2018, for example, found statistically significant improvement in children 5-17 years in five dimensions: irritability/agitation, lethargy/social withdrawal, stereotypic behavior, hyperactivity/noncompliance, and inappropriate speech. They found particularly good results in the irritability dimension. The researchers gave the children in the control group eight five-minute PBM exposures over four weeks. They used LED-lined helmets, so their findings may not be generalizable to whole-body PBM.

Michael R. Hamblin, who is a major figure in PBM research (you’ve seen me write about him here) believes that PBM can “in principle” be used to treat autism. He even advocates the widespread distribution of LED helmets for at-home management of a wide variety of brain disorders.

Photobiomodulation for Autism

The research continues. Researchers recently recruited participants for a PBM autism study that began January 2021. This study is also organized around LED-lined helmets.

I personally think the jury is still out on whether whole-body PBM (which is what we do here at Peak) is less effective than LED-lined helmets. You don’t get as close to the light source with whole-body PBM, but LED-lined helmets don’t provide the whole body benefits that can make the process feel more energizing. As a practical matter, however, it probably depends on which one the autistic person tolerates more easily. In any case, both of them are noninvasive and safe. So there’s very little risk in trying PBM to help manage autism.