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Harvard-MGH Study Finds Light Therapy Can Be Useful in Treating Traumatic Brain Injuries

A Harvard-affiliated study examined how light therapy may help people with traumatic brain injuries.
A Harvard-affiliated study examined how light therapy may help people with traumatic brain injuries. By Naomi S. Castellon-Perez
By Kevin A. Simauchi, Crimson Staff Writer

Researchers at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital found that near-infrared low-level light therapy — or LLLT — may help treat traumatic brain injuries, according to preliminary findings the group published in mid-September.

An estimated sixty-nine million people experience some form of traumatic brain injuries annually, making it the most common type of traumatic injury worldwide. However, there are currently no treatments for the condition, largely because of researchers’ lack of complete understanding of its underlying biological mechanisms and the challenges of conducting studies of actual patients with acute trauma.

The MGH study enlisted the help of 68 participants and of 20 researchers in order to examine the effects of LLLT over a period of four years. To find candidates, doctors screened 4,216 patients in the emergency room of Massachusetts General Hospital, looking for patients who demonstrated contusions, brain bleeds, skull or facial fractures, or blood accumulating outside the skull.

A team of physicists, neuroradiologists, physicians, and engineers developed a plastic helmet to administer the infrared treatment to trial participants.

The group arranged clusters of LED lights over the inner layer of the helmet in order to dissipate energy uniformly to the scalp. A disposable molded plastic piece shielded patients from any direct contact with LED light, while fans on the outside of the helmet protected them against any heat the LED lights generates.

Ultimately, team members like data scientist and Harvard Medical School Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Can Ozan Tan said the study’s outcome was unexpected. Statistics showed that light therapy could have a demonstrable effect on healing brain injuries.

“Seeing a measurable effect was, to me, the most surprising thing,” Tan said. “I was surprised to see an effect in a relatively small sample size, in this particular study. So I wasn't expecting that, to be honest.”

Despite those encouraging results, however, researchers remain unsure about how LLLT directly helps with treating traumatic brain injuries.

“We know from some of the earlier data in-vitro data in animal data, it has different effects on the structure and vasculature of the brain,” Tan said.

Jarone Lee, a professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School, also underscored that such preliminary results “can still be random noise.”

“This level of light through the helmet itself can promote healing of the injured brain, of course — that has to be seen,” Lee said. “But I think our prelim results do show that there’s a signal there, it’s that our sample size is too low to really make conclusions.”

Lee said that future studies are on a “holding pattern” while the U.S. Department of Defense, a primary sponsor of the study, dedicates resources to battling the COVID-19 pandemic as cases begin to surge again.

— Staff writer Kevin A. Simauchi can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @simauchi.

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