Dr Gordon Dougal recently raised eyebrows after holding aloft a helmet and claiming that the light emitting from it would cure Alz-heimer's disease. This extraordinary claim derives from research at the University of Sunderland, in North East England, showing that regular exposure to low levels of infrared light-at 1072 nm, a wavelength found naturally in sunlight-can improve learning ability.
Low levels of infrared light, such as we receive with simple exposure to the sun, can restart the brain's cognitive function among people considered beyond the reach of modern medicine.
Dr Dougal is the director of Virulite, a medical research com-pany based in Newton Aycliffe, in County Durham, and has pioneered a treatment approach that uses a lightweight helmet that is designed to deliver this frequency of light at regular intervals. He is now ready to take the concept one step further by initiating trials that will use the light helmet to treat dementia patients, who will be required to wear the helmet for 10 minutes each day.
Dougal got the idea of regenerat-ing the brain through his work with machines that use infrared light to fight cold sores. The light was found to boost the immune-system cells responsible for killing the herpes-virus that causes cold sores.
The research into the use of light to treat cognitive decline grew out of 25 years' worth of research on light therapy to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression caused by a lack of exposure to sunlight. Scientists first theorized that geriatric patients who are living in institutions and confined to their beds probably receive little natural light and are likely to be suffering from light deprivation. A study in which 10 patients were exposed to 10,000 lux of light for 30 minutes for five days showed that their depression levels decreased signifi-cantly during this high-intensity light therapy compared with lower levels of light exposure. In fact, after such exposures, half of the partici-pants no longer scored within the depressed range. Furthermore, they found that the more depressed the patient, according to their Geriatric Depression Scale scores (GDS), the greater their improvement (J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci, 2001; 56: M356-60).
Given these findings, scientists then wondered whether light could be used to treat any psychiatric disturbances other than depression. Their theory rested on two assump-tions: that timed exposures to light causes changes in circadian (sleep- wake) cycles; and that all diseases are subject to chronobiological features-that is, cycles that corres-pond to sunlight.
That living things are at the mercy of the sun was first mooted by Dr Franz Halberg, at the University of Minnesota, who discovered that many biological processes appear to run according to an in-built 'clock'. All living things apparently respond to the same 24-hour rhythm, in tandem with the earth's rotation. Halberg coined the terms 'chrono-biology'-referring to the influence of time and certain periodic cycles on biological functions-and 'cir-cadian' (from circa = about and dia = day) rhythms to describe daily biological cycles. He created the Chronobiology Laboratories at the University of Minnesota and became known as the father of chrono-biology. And, as his lab began to discover, chronobiology is a ready-made feature of organisms-not something learned or acquired, but an inherent property of life.
Besides circadian rhythms, Halberg also discovered that living things keep in time with many other periodic rhythms; indeed, half-weekly, weekly, monthly and yearly cycles govern virtually every biological function. The human pulse and blood pressure, body tempera-ture and blood-clotting, circulation of lymphocytes, hormonal cycles and other automatic functions of the human body all appear to ebb and flow according to some basic, recurring timetable. These rhythms are not unique to humans, but are present throughout nature, and evident even in the fossilized forms of single-celled organisms that lived millions of years ago.
Patients with dementia are known to have disturbed circadian rhythms. A study of the 24-hour circadian patterns and the sleep-wake cycles of 77 nursing-home patients found that the patients slept fitfully, reflected by their irregular sleep- wake cycles. Many people with dementia also spend comparatively less time exposed to bright light than do other people (Sleep; 1997; 20: 18-23). Patients with dementia also have chaotic sleeping habits, with more frequent bouts of waking during nighttime sleep and more frequent napping during the day (Int J Geriatr Psychiatry, 2006; 21: 945-50).
Thus far, light therapy has been used to treat such mental illnesses as adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bulimia nervosa and depression related to Parkinson's disease, as well as to regulate disturbances in the resting and activity cycles of elderly people with dementia (CNS Spectr, 2005; 10: 647-63; Sleep Med Rev, 2007; 11: 497-507).
Furthermore, a review of all ran-domized controlled trials of light treatment for dementia has shown some improvement in rest-activity rhythm. Other studies have shown that it can reduce behavioural symp-toms of dementia such as agitation and sleep disturbances (Int J Geriatr Psychiatry, 2004; 19: 516-22; Psychiatry Res, 1995; 57: 7-12).
Nevertheless, it's likely that indiv-idualized systems work best. One study of bright-light therapy at two psychiatric hospitals and a resident-ial care facility specially designed for dementia cases found considerable gender differences in responses. Men and women appeared to react very differently to the high-intensity, low-glare lighting system installed in public areas of the studied units. In particular, women registered far less depression than men in the presence of morning light.
Correcting our light
It could be that light therapy serves as a corrective of the light emitted by the patients. Some 30 years ago, while investigating a cure for cancer, German physicist Fritz-Albert Popp stumbled upon the fact that all living things emit tiny packets of light, which he called 'biophoton emiss-ions'. He came to believe that living systems maintain a delicate balance of light, with too much or too little indicating disease. He also uncovered what he called 'delayed lumines-cence': when light was shone on living cells, the cells would take up the light and, after a time-lag, shine more intensely. Popp considered this to be a corrective effect. Also, in this instance, when a living system was bombarded with too much light, it rejected the excess.
Popp has studied these biolight emissions for many years at the International Institute of Biophysics in Neuss, Germany. During this time, he has discovered that all of the thousands of chemical reactions in the body that control each molecule at every moment are regulated and coordinated by low-level ultraviolet (UV) light (380 nm). Light, in a sense, is the messenger that is communicating the cells' reactions to each other.
Popp's more recent investigations concern changes in light production following medical treatment. In one, medicated ointment was applied to a spot on a patient's arm. In another, in a patient with psoriasis affecting both arms, Popp applied the standard treatment for psoriasis, shining a UV lamp on both psoriatic and healthy parts of one arm for five minutes. After a few minutes in both these tests, Popp then measured the bio-photon emissions from the treated parts of the arm as well as those from various untreated parts of the body.
Using exacting equipment-devices that count light emissions photon by photon-they discovered something remarkable. If emissions from one part of the body either increased or decreased, so did those from the other parts of the body.
In his first such experiment, Popp found a large change in the light emissions not only from where he'd applied the ointment, but also from distant parts of the body. What's more, the size of the changes cor-related across the entire body; even from those parts where no ointment had been applied, Popp recorded the same increase in light as from where the medicine had been applied.
In the psoriatic patient after receving the UV therapy, the light emissions roughly quadrupled from both healthy and psoriatic areas of skin, again regardless of whether or not they'd been exposed to UV rays.
An hour later, all parts of the body-treated or untreated, healthy or unhealthy-had reverted to iden-tical light emissions, although the healthy regions of skin showed twice the amount of delayed luminescence as did unhealthy regions. This may be because healthy skin didn't 'need' the light and so 'got rid' of it, whereas the psoriatic regions did need it and so retained it.
Popp believes that he has uncovered a new channel of communications within the body that uses light as a means of instantaneous, 'non-local', signalling to the rest of the organism.
Popp's research takes us one step closer to understanding how our body communicates with itself as well as with the rest of the universe. Parts of the body tell each other the state of things through tiny notes of light. His findings also suggest why the tools of modern medicine so often have blunderbuss effects. Even if a treatment is well-targeted, such a non-local communications system will cause it to have a global effect on the living organism.
Although light is being explored for healing wounds and other skin conditions, and for pain relief, light research is still in its infancy. Each wavelength and frequency appears to create a different reaction, so it's important to tread carefully at this preliminary stage.
Indeed, even light can have side-effects. Patients may experience hypomania (a state between eupho-ria and a manic 'high') or hyper-activation of the autonomic nervous system, especially early in the treat-ment (CNS Spectr, 2005; 10: 647-63).
Nevertheless, this is the first evidence that the signalling and exchange of photons constantly carried on between living things is not just a means of communication. As we are truly beings of light, we may also be able to correct our own light when it goes awry.
The role of vitamin D
Low levels of vitamin D may play a role in the cognitive decline typically experienced by the elderly. Vitamin D deficiency is known to be common in older adults, and has also been linked to psychiatric and neurological disorders. In a study of 80 patients, 40 of whom had Alzheimer's disease and 40 of whom had no dementia-type disease, and after adjusting for age, race, gender and season, the study found that vitamin D deficiency was associated with a poor performance on cognitive tests and with mood disorders (Am J Geriatr Psychiatry, 2006; 14: 1032-40).