Article Archive
January/February 2012

Combating Dementia
With Infrared Light?

By Maura Keller
Aging Well
Vol. 5 No. 1 P. 6

Consider this: According to the Alzheimer’s Disease Research program, more than 5 million Americans aged 65 and older have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, the number of Americans with this disease could increase to more than 15 million.

Those numbers, along with the fact that Alzheimer’s disease represents about 70% of all cases of dementia, have caught the attention of researchers Marvin Berman, PhD, who heads the Quietmind Foundation in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, and Jack Lebeau, MD, FACC, the Quietmind Foundation’s medical director. These professionals are embracing infrared therapy as a new approach to improve mental functioning for sufferers of early-stage dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and traumatic brain injuries.

The Quietmind Foundation is a nonprofit clinical research, consultation, and training organization using noninvasive drug-free treatments for dementia and other neurocognitive impairments. The Quietmind team is devoted to bringing into the healthcare mainstream electroencephalography (EEG) biofeedback and related technologies, such as 1,072-nm infrared therapy.

Making Strides
The use of infrared light energy for the treatment of various ailments is nothing new. It has been used in recent years in wide-ranging applications from common cold sores to chronic pain to eye injuries.

But it was the work of Dr Gordon Dougal, director of Virulite, a medical research company in England, that caught the attention of Berman and Lebeau and enticed them to delve deeper into the use of infrared light technology’s impact on dementia. Dougal, along with researchers at Durham University and the University of Sunderland, found that infrared light works to reverse memory loss in mice.

Berman points to a published article by Dougal detailing how he and his colleagues raised specially bred mice that quickly developed the neurofibratory tangles common in Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. The study found that exposing middle-aged mice to infrared light for six minutes per day for 10 days improved their performance in a 3-D maze.

“We then started looking at other research that had been done by NASA that had to do with the rate of healing of people who were dealing with wounds and are functioning in zero gravity,” Berman says. “They published a number of papers that showed specific frequencies of infrared light will increase the rate of healing of certain kinds of tissue wounds.”

Improved Functioning
The purpose of Quietmind’s infrared study is to measure whether problems with executive functioning (including attention, working memory, strategies of learning and remembering, planning, organizing, self-monitoring, inhibition, and flexible thinking) can be effectively treated by repeated brief (6 min) exposure to 1072nm infrared light stimulation in order to increase cerebral blood flow, oxygenation, and facilitate removal of toxic proteins.

Candidates for the study included patients with an early-stage neurodegenerative disorder specifically affecting memory and cognitive and behavioral functioning. “We can’t have people with a major Axis 1 psychiatric diagnosis or an active growing lesion in their head or neck,” Berman says.

“We launched this first-ever clinical trial of its type to assess a new approach to improve mental functioning for sufferers of early-stage dementia,” Berman says. This randomized controlled double-blind study requires that applicants be between the ages of 50 and 85 and previously diagnosed with early-stage dementia. Participants go through several initial steps, including an evaluation of cognitive functioning, a specialized EEG recording of brain activity, and pen and paper cognitive testing.

“Using 1,072-nm infrared light to significantly alter the slope and course of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and traumatic brain injury, we are seeing significant changes in the functional, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive behaviors of people after one six-minute treatment with this specific frequency of infrared light,” Berman says.

According to Berman, after intensive treatment people show significant reversals in their symptoms, lasting as long as they continue to receive the treatment.

“We had started a clinical trial of EEG biofeedback training for people with dementia,” Berman says. “But biofeedback training is basically helping improve the functioning of neuronal circuits and not really helping repair tissue. It is not a direct physiological intervention on that level. The infrared is actually facilitating changes in basic molecular function and removal of toxic proteins and advancing the promotion and regeneration of new cells. It’s an actual physiological intervention.”

Berman says the researchers are seeing behavioral changes in study participants, including reduced anxiety and stress, mood elevation, and more energy. There are also changes in visual acuity, and as patients become more physically alert, they become more socially engaged and less withdrawn. The memory functions improve, including more robust visual memory.

“People are saying things like, ‘He hasn’t done that in three years’ or ‘I have my husband back,’” Berman says.

Claudia Kawas, MD, the Al and Trish Nichols Chair in Clinical Neuroscience and a professor of neurobiology & behavior and neurology at the University of California, Irvine and a geriatric neurologist and researcher in the areas of aging and dementia, notes that she has heard objections about the ability of infrared light to penetrate the skull. “The developers believe there is enough penetration, but many others don’t,” Kawas says. “Moreover, we don’t even know that infrared actually can stimulate neurogenesis if it is penetrating. Either way, in my opinion, the real issue at present is there is very little data to support the notion thus far.”

Gary W. Small, MD, the Parlow-Solomon professor on aging, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, director of the UCLA Longevity Center, and director of the geriatric psychiatry division at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, finds the study interesting but wants to learn more.

“What they are showing is a very small study,” he says. “Although they are doing standardized assessments, I’d like to see a larger study with more detail. And while it is showing changes with EEG measures, that could be very tricky. Those can be good correlates of cognitive function, but it is not a surrogate for cognitive function. You can be fooled where your scan looks good, but there’s no change in cognition. It is an interesting study, and I’d like to see them do more work because we need more treatments for dementia.”

Quietmind’s plan is to expand from phase 1 and 2 trials to a phase 3 multisite trial. Berman and Lebeau are seeking partnerships with academic research departments to do just that.

“Our research agenda is basically threefold: It is to repair, regrow, and retrain. We are going to use the 1,072 to repair and prevent further injury,” Berman says. “We are going to use 780-nm infrared lasers and hyperbaric oxygen to help regrow new neurons and dendrites. And then we will use brainwave biofeedback training to retrain the neurological pathways. So far, all of the pieces work individually, and our next phase is to put them all together. That’s why we are hoping to get support from NIH [the National Institutes of Health] and other investors so we can continue on our path.”

— Maura Keller is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.


Continuing Research
The Quietmind Foundation is seeking subjects whose symptoms are not greater than moderately severe, are between the ages of 50 and 85, and meet the following inclusion criteria:

• have established cognitive decline, with a Mini-Mental State Examination score between 15 and 25 (of a possible 30);

• are generally healthy otherwise as indicated by a recent physical examination;

• have undergone a CT or MRI scan in the previous 12 months that was consistent with a dementia diagnosis;

• have a caregiver/informant who has cared for the patient at least five days per week and is willing to attend study visits and provide information about the patient;

• if taking any psychotropic medication, should have been stable for the previous three months; and

• must have had vitamin B12, folic acid, full blood count, and ferritin screening within the previous six months or be on B12 and/or folic acid replacement.

The following patient criteria would constitute ineligibity to participate:

• have uncontrolled or unstable chronic illness (eg, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease);

• have diagnosed actively growing intracranial pathology (tumors);

• misuse illegal substances or alcohol;

• take regular systemic steroids or antimetabolites;

• have systemic malignancies;

• are not fluent in English;

• are depressed as assessed by Beck Depression Inventory score;

• lack capacity to give informed consent;

• have dementia that may be due to other causes;

• have previous history of stroke or heart attack;

• have history of aggression or violence;

• are unable to travel to the research venue for multiple assessments; or

• have history of major psychiatric illness, seizure disorder, or physical illness that would compromise participation in a daily treatment regimen.