Photobiomodulation and Traumatic Brain Injury

What is a Traumatic Brain Injury?

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a broad term that includes any injury to the brain. A TBI can happen to anyone in a number of different situations. These range from (and are not limited to) car accidents and sports injuries (e.g. football, cycling, boxing) to military engagements (e.g. IED – Improvised Explosive Device – blasts). A TBI can happen to someone wearing a helmet and a seatbelt. Since the brain is so complex, injury to it can have varying effects including:

  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • Cognitive dysfunction (decreases in mental functioning that affects daily life like memory impairment)
  • Speech impairment
  • Motor control dysfunction (movement impairment)
  • Poor sleep
  • Poor emotional control (e.g. outbursts).

These injuries are very difficult to treat and commonly become chronic, with patients suffering from symptoms for the rest of their lives.

What can we do for a Traumatic Brain Injury?

More than 1.6 million TBIs occur every year in the United States alone[3]. About 300,000 of these are sports related[6]. For high school students and young adults, sports are second only to car accidents as the leading cause of TBIs and they are on the rise[6,11]. This alarming fact underscores the need for a successful TBI treatment.

Out of all Traumatic Brain Injuries, permanent disability occurs in 10% of mild injuries (i.e. concussions), 66% of moderate injuries, and 100% of severe injuries[3]. Part of the issue with chronic symptoms (e.g. cognitive impairment) is that there are not many successful treatment options, so patients suffer long past (years to decades) the initial injury event[2]. Usually, the best treatment is playing the “waiting-game”, a patient just waits until their symptoms get better. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Cognitive Rehabilitation has shown some efficacy[1]. There are also pharmaceutical treatments for TBI (steroids and others), but these generally don’t have any significant effects, although they may make a patient temporarily feel better[5]. Surgical interventions can be prescribed in the most serious of cases[5]. However, the outcomes from these options leave much to be desired. Many have serious side effects which either prevent patients from seeking them or the treatments create other problems. There is a pressing need for a treatment solution that can help TBI patients with no side effects.

Can Photobiomodulation help people with a TBI?

Case studies have shown that when Photobiomodulation Therapy (PBMT) is applied to the head of TBI patient, their cognition is improved[10,11]. These folks do better on neuropsychological tests (e.g. memory, executive function) after PBMT, even when having suffered for years with chronic TBI syndromes[9,10,11]. PBMT has helped folks with TBI sleep better and report better social, interpersonal and professional interactions with friends, family, and colleagues[10,11]. PBMT can be used at home, or in a wellness-clinic setting, due to its non-invasive nature and no reported side effects[9].

Recently, retired football players with decades-long chronic TBI symptoms, notably documented histories of cognitive decline, have demonstrated improvement in cognitive test scores, depression scores, and emotional control scores after PBMT[7]. These athletes’ brains are at high risk for damage due to the repetitive impacts they receive.

Although PBMT is relatively old (50 years), only recently has it been put into practice to help TBI patients. Most studies have focused on chronic TBI, but laboratory evidence tells us that treating early and treating often is the most helpful.

How Does PBMT work?

Briefly, PBMT works by shining light in the red and near-infrared wavelengths on the body (in this case the head). This results in decreased oxidative stress, decreased inflammation, increased blood flow, and increased healing. It works in conjunction with the body’s natural energy generation and healing systems, creating more energy in the body. It also has protective effects for healthy cells[4]. For a deeper dive please see our evidence-based article: What is Photobiomodulation Therapy (PMBT)?

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Thanks for reading and do reach out to us if you have any questions, we love talking science!

    1. Cicerone, K. D., Dahlberg, C., Malec, J. F., Langenbahn, D. M., Felicetti, T., Kneipp, S., ... & Laatsch, L. (2005). Evidence-based cognitive rehabilitation: updated review of the literature from 1998 through 2002. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 86(8), 1681-1692.
    2. Crooks, C. Y., Zumsteg, J. M., & Bell, K. R. (2007). Traumatic brain injury: a review of practice management and recent advances. Physical medicine and rehabilitation clinics of North America, 18(4), 681-710.
    3. Frey, L. C. (2003). Epidemiology of posttraumatic epilepsy: a critical review. Epilepsia, 44, 11-17.
    4. Hamblin, M. R. (2018). Photobiomodulation for traumatic brain injury and stroke. Journal of neuroscience research, 96(4), 731-743.
    5. Maas, A. I., Stocchetti, N., & Bullock, R. (2008). Moderate and severe traumatic brain injury in adults. The Lancet Neurology, 7(8), 728-741.
    6. Marar, M., McIlvain, N. M., Fields, S. K., & Comstock, R. D. (2012). Epidemiology of concussions among United States high school athletes in 20 sports. The American journal of sports medicine, 40(4), 747-755.
    7. Naeser, M. A. (2018). 3rd Annual BU CTE Conference.
    8. Naeser, M. A., Martin, P. I., Ho, M. D., Krengel, M. H., Bogdanova, Y., Knight, J. A., ... & Koo, B. B. (2016). Transcranial, red/near-infrared light-emitting diode therapy to improve cognition in chronic traumatic brain injury. Photomedicine and laser surgery, 34(12), 610-626.
    9. Naeser, M. A., Saltmarche, A., Krengel, M. H., Hamblin, M. R., & Knight, J. A. (2011). Improved cognitive function after transcranial, light-emitting diode treatments in chronic, traumatic brain injury: two case reports. Photomedicine and laser surgery, 29(5), 351-358.
    10. Naeser, M. A., Zafonte, R., Krengel, M. H., Martin, P. I., Frazier, J., Hamblin, M. R., ... & Baker, E. H. (2014). Significant improvements in cognitive performance post-transcranial, red/near-infrared light-emitting diode treatments in chronic, mild traumatic brain injury: open-protocol study. Journal of neurotrauma, 31(11), 1008-1017.
    11. Rosenthal, J. A., Foraker, R. E., Collins, C. L., & Comstock, R. D. (2014). National high school athlete concussion rates from 2005-2006 to 2011-2012. The American journal of sports medicine, 42(7), 1710-1715.


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