It looks like something from a science fiction film: users don a white plastic helmet that shines infrared light onto the head, through the skull and into the brain. But a new study from Durham University shows that infrared light therapy can profoundly reduce the symptoms of dementia. After wearing the cap for just 12 minutes a day for four weeks, people in the study found a “significant improvement” in memory, mental quickness and fine motor skills.
One 56-year-old participant said that after treatment she found that she could remember messages much more easily, slept better, and felt more relaxed.
Previous studies suggest the therapy could have other, wide-ranging effects including smoothing out wrinkles and speeding up the healing of injuries. There is even some preliminary evidence that suggests that one day it could be part of the treatment of cancer.
So what is infrared therapy, and how could shining light beams onto you possibly do anything?
Infrared therapy – or low-level light therapy (LLLT) – started life in the 1960s, when a scientist discovered that a gentle laser could help to regrow hair in mice. Over the decades, it has grown in popularity and gained some scientific backing, with studies testing its ability to treat pain, skin healing and even brain disorders.
Its description as a light therapy might be slightly confusing: infrared is not actually visible to the human eye. On the familiar red to violet rainbow of light, infrared is just on the other side of red, which is beyond frequencies that human eyes can see.
According to the Durham study, infrared light treatment works in a few ways. The first is that it stimulates mitochondria, which are the part of a cell that creates the energy needed to power the rest of the cell. When the mitochondria are stimulated by light, they release more energy into the cell in the form of ATP, a compound that is often lacking in patients with dementia. The researchers say it can also increase blood flow in the brain by raising levels of nitric oxide, a chemical that can widen blood vessels.
And some research shows that infrared light therapy’s stimulating effects can work on a range of conditions. It could be helpful for those who have recently had surgery, as research suggests it can help wounds to heal faster. One American-led study from 2004 deliberately cut 22 brave subjects on the forearm. Those who received two doses of infrared treatment found that their cuts healed faster than those who didn’t.
Ruth Phypers, owner of Laser Medicine, says that she sees many patients who come to her with wounds that they have had for months without them healing. “They might have a wound that has not got better for nine months and it can heal with three treatments,” she says.
This skin-healing effect means that infrared therapy is also a popular beauty treatment. Ultraviolet light, which is in sunlight, has well-known ageing properties, but it is possible that infrared light does the opposite. Several studies show that infrared can boost collagen production, which makes skin seem firmer and smooths out wrinkles. “It won’t stop you from having wrinkles but it does reduce them a lot”, says Phypers. “A lot of quite famous actresses come to me: they want to reduce wrinkles but [still move their face].” If you want to try the benefits at home, there are a range of masks that claim to emit infrared light for beauty purposes on the market, which range from about £150 into the thousands.
The healing possibilities of infrared are being tested for severe injuries too. The US Department of Defense funded a study last year on the possibility of using infrared light to treat traumatic brain injury (TBI), which affects 69 million people a year worldwide, including soldiers who have been involved in a major explosion. Researchers found improvements in the brain cells of patients who had received the light therapy, as opposed to those who didn’t.
There are even ongoing studies testing whether infrared might be able to treat cancer, in a new treatment called photoimmunotherapy. Studies show that infrared could be a hybrid therapy that works by both killing cancer cells directly, and by encouraging the patient’s immune system to attack the cancerous cells. At present, the research has been on cells and in mice, although there are ongoing trials in human patients with inoperable tumours.
Infrared is also a popular choice in spas, as it can be used to heat saunas. In a traditional sauna the air is heated, but in an infrared sauna panels emit rays that warm your body up directly. This could be more energy-efficient, as well as warming you more than in a traditional sauna. This could benefit your health: studies show that saunas can improve your cardiovascular health and even boost your mood.
But for now, while the science is still new, how and when to use infrared therapy is still a bit of a mystery. While there don’t appear to be any short-term side effects, there hasn’t been much research on what long-term effects it could have.
Some think that people with darker skin might need longer under the laser to see the same benefits, while others are unsure about whether the time under an infrared lamp might need to be adjusted based on age or other factors. “The question is what dose do you give and what are the protocols for each kind of condition”, says Phyper.