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Red Light Therapy For The Brain: Boost Your Cognitive Function

Last Reviewed on May 1, 2024

Learn how to unlock the power of red light therapy for brain health. Enhance cognitive function, treat neurodegenerative disorders, and speed up recovery from stroke or injury.

Does red light therapy work on the brain?

Yes. Red light treatments use specific wavelengths to kick off a plethora of biochemical reactions, which can then enhance overall brain function, support the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders, and accelerate healing from stroke or injury.

These wavelengths have been extensively studied to test their effects on the body – particularly the brain. But how does it work? And what can it do to help boost your brain?

In this short guide, we’ll explore:

  • How red light therapy works
  • What it can do for your brain (from treating neurodegenerative disorders to brain damage)
  • How to use it to your advantage

If you’re ready to stimulate your brain in more ways than one, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of using red light therapy for your brain.

Red Light Therapy For The Brain: How Does It Work?

Red light therapy, also known as low-level light therapy (LLLT), photobiomodulation (PBM), or transcranial photobiomodulation (tPBM), has become a popular form of therapy for a range of conditions – including traumatic brain injuries and other dysfunctions that could impair the brain. In fact, there are several measurable benefits of red light therapy that prove just how effective it can be!

This therapy is usually administered by applying red and near-infrared light wavelengths onto the skin. In the case of traumatic brain injury, it’s usually applied to the forehead or the top of the head. Typically, this is also done by using LED (light-emitting diodes) helmets, but it can be tweaked for more targeted therapy.

When the device is on, the light penetrates the skin and can reach the brain to influence different cellular processes.

In turn, the brain can benefit from these biochemical reactions, which become like a domino effect within the brain. For example, it can help improve blood flow to the brain, reduce inflammation, and more.

Doctor analyzing brain MRI scans on computer

Improved Cerebral Blood Flow

Red light therapy has actually been found to stimulate blood flow in the brain, which can potentially help with conditions like traumatic brain injury (TBI) recovery and promote healing in certain areas of the brain [1].

With more blood flow comes more oxygen and nutrients to the damaged brain tissue, which can help support the healing process. It can also lower the risk of ischemia (inadequate blood supply) that is often associated with TBI.

Enhanced Brain Cell Functioning

With red light therapy, you can improve your metabolic functioning [2]. Because LLLT and near-infrared (NIR) light stimulates the mitochondria in neurons, there is an increase in the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), according to Dr. Margaret Naeser, PhD and Principal Investigator at the Boston University School of Medicine.

ATP is a source of energy within your cells, meaning it can enhance the efficiency of your brain cells while also mitigating conditions related to mitochondrial dysfunction (like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease).

Reduced Inflammation & Oxidative Stress

Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain have been linked to certain neurodegenerative diseases. This includes stroke and traumatic brain injury.

Since red light therapy has anti-inflammatory properties, it can help to reduce this oxidative stress and support your overall brain health [3].

Enhanced Neurogenesis & Synaptogenesis

Red light therapy has been associated with stimulating neurogenesis (the regrowth of neurons) and synaptogenesis (the formation of synapses or gaps between neurons) [4, 5]. Basically, it helps the brain to create new cells and strengthen connections that already exist. This can help restore crucial brain processes, improving quality of life in those with traumatic brain injury [6]

As a result, red light therapy can be effective for treating conditions such as TBI. It can encourage the brain to repair and improve its internal wiring.

Infographic of neurogenesis stages and red light therapy impact

What Does Red Light Do To Your Brain?

Here’s what the science says about red light therapy and its impact on the brain.

Treating Neurodegenerative Disorders

Red light therapy can treat a number of neurodegenerative diseases, from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s. 

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)

Alzheimer’s is a severe form of dementia, but research suggests that red light therapy may offer some incredibly advantageous therapeutic effects. In fact, there was a study in 2017 that focused on patients who had mild to moderately severe AD and were receiving near-infrared light therapy (NIR therapy).

The results from this study showed significant improvements in these patients: increased cognitive function, better sleep, less anxiety, fewer angry outbursts, and less wandering.

However, the study also showed that there was a decline in brain function after four weeks without treatment [7]. This decline could be reduced by follow-up and maintenance treatments.

Senior assembling puzzle for brain health

Parkinson’s Disease (PD)

While there still needs to be more research done on the subject, the research that has already been done has shown that LLLT could potentially be an effective treatment for Parkinson’s as well [8].

In one 2018 study, 75% of PD patients treated with red light therapy reported improvements across a number of symptoms, including tremor, akinesia, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, poor facial animation, reduced fine motor skills, loss of smell, and impaired social confidence [9].

A 2019 study found 670 nm red LED therapy to result in clinical improvements in PD patients after a total of 18 sessions over 9 weeks [10].

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Although it’s not a neurodegenerative disorder, PTSD is often associated with brain trauma. For this reason, people with PTSD may potentially benefit from interventions that support brain health.

A 2014 study found red light therapy to result in a “clinically meaningful decrease” in patients with PTSD symptoms [11]. However, the sample size for this study was small, as the focus was not specifically on treating PTSD.

Additionally, red light therapy has shown some promise in improving depression symptoms in those with PTSD [12]. 

Recovering From Brain Damage

Red light therapy can help accelerate the healing process after a stroke or brain injury

Strokes

Strokes, which are characterized by the interruption of blood flow to the brain, can result in lasting damage and possibly even disability. There have even been multiple studies to evidence how LLLT can aid with recovery for stroke patients:

  • A study conducted in 2007 focused on patients who suffered an ischemic stroke. LLLT was applied to their forehead and the patients showed significant improvement even after just one treatment, with some of the effects still apparent 90 days later [13].
  • Another clinical trial in 2016 treated chronic stroke patients with LLLT, which resulted in them feeling less pain and fatigue from their post-stroke spasticity [14].
Ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke diagrams with red light therapy benefits

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

There are several degrees of TBI, and each one of them is said to potentially be improved with regular, ongoing LLLT. This may include:

  • Mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), also known as a concussion, is a common result of head trauma. LLLT may help to speed up the recovery process [11, 15]
  • Moderate traumatic brain injury (modTBI) involves a more serious impact or head trauma, which can lead to severe impairment or longer periods of unconsciousness. LLLT, especially with 810 nm NIR light, can help to boost recovery and reduce long-term neurological damage [16]
  • Chronic traumatic brain injury/encephalopathy (CTE) is often due to repeated head trauma, but LLLT may help to reverse cognitive decline after a brain injury

Note: Most studies focus on chronic, mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI). While we can extrapolate that red light therapy can be beneficial for other TBI patients, more research is needed.

Doctor examining football player in clinic

Boosting Cognitive Function

Red light therapy can have several cognitive benefits, helping you think more clearly.

Brainwave Activity

Cognitive functioning encompasses several mental processes like learning, memory, attention, and problem-solving. With LLLT, you can influence brain activity. 850 nm wavelength light was found to promote increased alpha and theta brainwave activity [17].

The former activities are associated with relaxed attention, creativity, and learning, meaning they can improve your cognitive functioning [18].

Brain model showing areas affected by red light therapy

Frontal Cortex Stimulation

LLLT can help to promote increased activity in the brain’s frontal cortex. This region of the brain is responsible for executive functioning and controls things like self-control, decision-making, and problem-solving. When it’s stimulated by LLLT, it can help to improve most of these functions, as well as:

  • Attention: Faster reaction time in a sustained-attention psychomotor vigilance task (PVT)
  • Memory: Better performance in a delayed match-to-sample (DMS) memory task 
  • Mood: More positive emotional states compared to the control [19]

Improving Mental Health

Beyond cognitive benefits, red light therapy can help improve mental health.

Anxiety & Depression

Using light to treat depression isn’t anything new. Bright light therapy is a widely accepted treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

That said, red light has only recently emerged as a possible treatment for anxiety and depression. In a 2009 study, applying 810 nm near-infrared light to the forehead led to improvements in anxiety and depression symptoms after 2 weeks [12].

Another study tested transcranial photobiomodulation (tPBM) on patients with major depressive disorder (MDD). After an eight week treatment period, researchers concluded that “tPBM with NIR light demonstrated antidepressant properties with a medium to large effect size in patients with MDD” [20]. 

These findings could revolutionize the way that these mental health concerns are treated (in conjunction with traditional treatments, of course).

Neurotransmitter Regulation

Neurotransmitters, like serotonin, are incredibly important for regulating your mood. Since low levels of these neurotransmitters have been linked to depression and anxiety [21], finding a way to improve or increase serotonin levels can help to stabilize your mood.

LLLT may potentially do this for you [22], which means that using it in conjunction with other therapies and treatments could help to regulate your mood. When you boost serotonin, you feel better. In turn, your mental health should also follow suit.

Illustration of red light therapy on neuronal synapse

Improved Sleep

In some mental health disorders, struggling with sleep is common. From extreme fatigue to insomnia, there are several different ways in which your sleep may be disturbed. Luckily, LLLT can have a positive impact on sleep for a variety of conditions – particularly insomnia [23].

How To Use Red Light Therapy For Brain Health

To use the power of red light therapy to your advantage, choosing the right red light therapy device is the best place to start. Without the “correct” device, you’re not likely to get the results you desire.

You’ll want to choose red light therapy devices that have a proven track record for treating your brain, like intranasal devices or helmets. You’ll also want to opt for a combination of red and near-infrared light wavelengths if you want it to be effective.

Before you start any kind of red light treatment, consult a healthcare professional to make sure that it’s safe to use. In some cases, these treatments won’t be as effective or have potential negative effects on preexisting conditions.

Your doctor may also be able to tweak your treatment plan and time to make it as effective as possible. This is essential when you’re using LLLT, otherwise, you may not even notice any measurable results.

Full-body exposure is also perfect for this practice since it ensures that the whole device delivers ultra-high power to stimulate stem cells and ATP production throughout your body. You can also alternate between the methods below to boost the amount of light that penetrates different parts of the brain:

  • Transcranial (forehead)
  • Intracranial (ear or behind the ear)
  • Intranasal (through the nose)

Remember, it’s important to follow the recommended treatment protocols for your condition, which can range from a few minutes to 20 minutes per session. Consistency is key, though, with regular sessions being more beneficial for your brain cells.

Man reading book wearing a white therapeutic helmet

For conditions like neurological disorders, strokes, or traumatic injury to the brain, you may also need to plan follow-up or maintenance sessions to keep benefiting from this therapy.

No matter what, it’s essential to remember that red light therapy should complement and not replace conventional medical treatments.

FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions about red light therapy and the brain.

Is Red Light Therapy Bad For The Brain?

When it’s used properly, red light therapy shows a lot of potential for positive cognitive benefits. Studies done on this therapy (when used to treat brain injuries) also suggest that it can improve cerebral blood flow, boost cell functioning, and reduce inflammation.

The therapeutic possibilities are actually attributed to its ability to stimulate cellular processes within your brain, which can help with improved mental clarity and functioning.

However, you should always consult your physician or a healthcare professional before using red light therapy for brain-related injuries. This is because improper use of red light therapy may have negative effects.

Can Red Light Therapy Help With Brain Fog?

Absolutely! This therapy has positive effects on your cognitive functioning by improving the blood flow around your brain and boosting activity within the cells. This can potentially help to alleviate any mental fogginess you’re experiencing.

The effectiveness of red light on the brain varies from person to person, though. If you’re using LED light therapy, you’ll need to make sure that you’re using it consistently and that you’ve tailored it to suit your specific needs.

Remember, everyone responds differently, so finding the right approach for your circumstances will usually make or break the treatment’s effectiveness.

How Long Does Red Light Therapy Take For Cognitive Benefits?

The amount of time it takes to see or feel the cognitive benefits of red light therapy will usually vary. In some cases, you may see an improvement after a few weeks, while other times some people have had to wait much longer. It all depends on how your body responds, the details of your therapy (how often you’re using it, how long you use it for, etc.), and other individual circumstances.

Since everyone is different, it’s important to find the right balance for yourself. You may need to tweak how often and the length of time you’re using the therapy to reap the benefits you’re after.

Final Thoughts

Red light therapy has proven itself as an extremely beneficial therapeutic technique to treat brain disorders, help in the recovery from brain damage, and aid in improved cognitive function. Plus, in the many clinical studies reviewed in this study, there were very few (if any) side effects reported.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6390875/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6664299/ 
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5523874/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4777909/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28580093/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4550182/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5568598/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7225948/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6128061/ 
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30824206
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4043367/
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2796659/
  13. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17463313/
  14. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27299571/
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3104287/
  16. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26535475/ 
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7954620/
  18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19922249/
  19. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23200785/
  20. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30346890/
  21. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-022-01661-0
  22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30883832/
  23. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37692298/
Anne, Founder of Therapeutic Beams

Anne Linde

Since using it to clear up her acne in college, Anne has been an avid user and fan of all things light therapy. She now primarily uses red light therapy for its anti-aging benefits. Anne's mission is to make the science behind red light therapy easy to understand and accessible, so anyone can use it to take control of their health and wellbeing.

John Ni, BSc.

John, a graduate of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, serves as a respected scientific reviewer at TherapeuticBeams.com. His expertise extends across various domains, including chemistry, pharmaceuticals, and dermatology. He contributes to publications like Royal Society of Chemistry, Drug Topics, and Practical Dermatology.

John Ni, Content Editor & Scientific Review

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