A new infrared light therapy has the potential to help people with dementia.

A pilot study recently investigated how transcranial photobiomodulation therapy (PBM-T) –transferred through a specially adapted helmet — could boost memory, motor function and processing skills in healthy people.

The study, led by Dr Paul Chazot of Durham University and GP Dr Gordon Dougal of Maculume Ltd, yielded promising results which could possibly benefit people with dementia.

The PBM-T helmet delivers infrared light deep into the brain for six minutes at a time. This stimulates mitochondria that generate most of the chemical energy needed to power the biochemical reaction in brain cells.

 The researchers believe this can lead to a rise in an organic compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is markedly lower in dementia patients. ATP provides energy to drive processes in living cells and helps repair nerve cells.

The therapy can also increase nitric oxide levels, and thus blood flow in the brain, by improving the flexibility of the membrane that lines the inside of blood vessels. This opens up blood vessels so more oxygen can reach deep into white brain matter.

The helmet is easy to wear, meaning the therapy can be delivered at home.

In a pilot study, improvements were detected in healthy people aged 45 and over, who received six minutes of therapy twice daily at a wavelength of 1068 nanometres over four weeks.

This included a significant improvement in performance in motor function (finger tapping), memory performance (mathematical processing, a type of working memory), delayed memory and brain processing speed.

Dr Chazot, who has spent 20 years studying particular infrared wavelengths for dementia treatment, said: “While this is a pilot study and more research is needed, there are promising indications that therapy involving infrared light might also be beneficial for people living with dementia and this is worth exploring.

“Indeed, we and our US research collaborators recently also published a new independent clinical study which provides the first evidence for profound and rapid improvement in memory performance in dementia.”

He added that particular wavelengths of infrared light are known to help alleviate nerve cell damage.

Dr Dougal devised the £7,250 PBM-T helmet, which delivers infrared light deep into the brain from 14 fan-cooled LED light arrays. The County Durham GP said the helmet “may well help dying brain cells regenerate into functioning units once again”. He added: “Much more research is needed to fully understand the mechanism of action.”

Durham Uni researchers were also involved in two recently published, separate pilot Alzheimer’s disease clinical studies in the USA, looking at the effectiveness of the therapy. Those studies found a similar profound and rapid positive effect for men and women with mild to moderate dementia. Participants reported elevated mood, less anxiety, and having more energy.

Scientists stress that more research is needed, but that early findings are promising. It is also thought the therapy might have potential benefits for disorders like Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury and motor neurone disease.