Military Connection: An Alternative Treatment for TBI

brain injuryBy Debbie Gregory.

There are no approved therapies for traumatic brain injury (TBI) despite an incidence of over 1 million cases per year, in both the civilian and military arenas. Injuries to the brain caused by explosions or exposure to pesticides (or other neurotoxins) may now be able to be treated with light therapy.

Researchers at the VA Boston Healthcare system are testing the effects of this new therapy on brain function in veterans with Gulf War Illness.

Veterans participating in the study wear a helmet that is lined with light-emitting diodes that apply red and near-infra-red light to the scalp. They also have diodes placed in their nostrils to help deliver photons to the deeper parts of the brain.

Transcranial application of near-infrared laser or LED light is non-invasive, inexpensive and without side-effects. As a painless 30-minute treatment that generates no heat, the LED therapy increases blood flow in the brain, as shown on MRI scans. It also appears to have an effect on damaged brain cells, specifically on their mitochondria. These are bean-shaped subunits within the cell that put out energy in the form of a chemical known as ATP.

However, as this therapy is still considered “investigational” it is not covered by most health insurance plans, but is already being used by some alternative medicine practitioners to treat wounds and pain.

Leading the investigation is Dr. Margaret Naeser, a research linguist and speech pathologist for the Boston VA, and a research professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM). She is also a licensed acupuncturist and has conducted past research on laser acupuncture to treat paralysis in stroke, and pain in carpal tunnel syndrome.

She believes the light therapy can be a valuable adjunct to standard cognitive rehabilitation, which typically involves “exercising” the brain in various ways to take advantage of brain plasticity and forge new neural networks.

While the LED approach has its skeptics, Naeser’s group has already published encouraging results in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Dr. Naeser hopes the work will validate LED therapy as a viable treatment for veterans and others with brain difficulties. She foresees potential not only for war injuries, but also for conditions such as depression, stroke, dementia, and even autism.

“There are going to be many applications, I think. We’re just in the beginning stages right now.”

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Military Connection: An Alternative Treatment for TBI : By Debbie Gregory