Proof Lasers Heal the Brain

In the past, Kahn had helped people who had brain and other nerve-related problems such as headaches from concussions, vascular dementia (dementia caused by blood vessel problems in the brain), migraines, Bells palsy (a paralysis of the facial nerve), and tinnitus (ringing of the ears). He emphasized he was influenced by research that had been done in Israel on light therapy and the brain.

Dr. Shimon Rochkind, a neurosurgeon at Tel Aviv University, originally pioneered work using lasers to treat injuries in the peripheral nervous system, that is, all the nerves in the body except those in the brain and spinal cord. Injury to peripheral nerves can lead to problems sensing or moving. For one hundred years, it has been known that peripheral nerves are neuroplastic and often can regrow after injury. Usually surgery is used to repair these nerves—provided it can be done within about six months of the injury. Rochkind has shown that applying low-intensity lasers to peripheral nerves can help them heal, and that the light improves nerve-cell metabolism, increases sprouting of new connections between nerves, enhances the growth of new nerve axons (which conduct electrical signals) and of myelin (the fatty covering around the nerves that allows them to send faster signals), and decreases scar tissue. Rochkind showed that in both animals and human beings, low-intensity lasers helped damaged nerves stop degenerating and start regenerating themselves. Working with an American team, he also showed that a cranial nerve could be healed.

The big question for Rochkind was: Could these wonderful changes, and new neuronal growth, also occur in the central nervous system—in the spinal cord and brain?

He next showed that some severe spinal cord injuries responded to laser therapy. The team cut the spinal cords of rats, simulating a severe spinal cord injury. They then injected spinal cord stem cells into the space between the cuts and lasered the area in the treatment group but not in the control group. The cut sections of spinal cord that were lasered regenerated, grew together, reestablished their electrical connection, and began signaling properly. In another study, he showed that lasering rat brain embryo cells led them to sprout new connections and migrate to places in the brain where they would be of use.

More breakthrough studies of this kind continue to come from Israel. Tel Aviv University zoologist Uri Oron has been studying the use of lasers to regenerate damaged brain, muscle, and heart tissue. In 2007 he and his colleagues showed that lasers can stimulate ATP production in human neural progenitor cells, which are like baby neurons, or precursors to fully developed human neurons, by aiming low-intensity lasers at human cells in a petri dish. In another experiment, Uri Oron, Amir Oron, and their colleagues from Israel and the United States tested this same laser on mice with traumatic brain injuries caused by dropping a weight on the mice's heads. The injuries were deep inside the brain. Then, four hours after the head injury, the researchers used low-intensity laser light, passing it just over the outside of the animals' heads. A control group did not get the laser treatment. Immediately after the trauma, there were no differences between the two groups, but by five days after the injury, the laser-treated mice showed far fewer neurological deficits. These advantages persisted. When, a month after the injury, the team examined the brains of the mice, the size of the injury was significantly smaller in the mice that had had light exposure.

The Orons and their Israeli and American colleagues next conducted similar experiments with rats that had had strokes. They blocked off an artery, causing a stroke, much like ones that humans suffer. Then twenty-four hours after their strokes, some of the animals had a laser laid on their heads. They had fewer neurological losses than those that weren't exposed to light. They also had more newly formed neuronal cells.

To my mind, every emergency room should have a low-intensity laser for people with stroke or head trauma. This therapy would be especially important for head injuries, because there is no effective drug therapy for traumatic brain injury. Uri Oron has also shown that low-intensity laser light can reduce scar formation in animals that have had heart attacks; perhaps lasers should be used in emergency rooms for cardiac events as well.

Eight years ago Kahn had chest pain during an incipient heart attack caused by narrowing in a coronary artery. After getting emergency room treatment, he used a low-intensity laser on his heart. His vessel narrowing disappeared on a later nuclear scan. He's now off all cardiac medication and is symptom-free. Since then, he has found that use of lasers has helped many patients with coronary artery disease, and that symptoms often disappear after six months to several years.

Using Lasers for Other Brain Problems

I visited Kahn's clinic on a regular basis to see patients who had brain problems. Often my guide was Kahn's forty-year-old clinical director, Dr. Slava Kim, a general surgeon from Kazakhstan. Kim is half Korean and half Russian-Ukrainian: he was very familiar with traditional Eastern energy medicine, which the Koreans brought with them to Russia; he is holistic in his approach to patients and a tae kwon do champion in his age class. In Kazakhstan, serious laser treatment has been commonplace in surgery since the Russian researchers Meshalkin and Sergievskii introduced low-intensity laser irradiation of the blood, a treatment unheard of in the West even today. In 1981 they began applying light to patients with cardiovascular problems.

The first time Kim saw irradiation work was with a patient who had septicemia—a life-threatening blood infection. The man had not responded to antibiotics and was at death's door. Knowing that light helps the body heal itself, the doctors inserted a fiber optic laser carrying 632 nanometers of laser light into the patient intravenously, through a tube in his vein. The approach had been copioneered by Tiina Karu, from Moscow, from whom Kahn had learned so much. When Kim checked the man's blood tests, he saw a rapid dramatic decrease in white blood cells, meaning that his infection had subsided. Suddenly the antibiotics that had failed him started working. The man achieved a full recovery. It is hard to think of a more graphic demonstration of the new fusion of conventional techniques and energy medicine: the use of an IV to administer not a drug but light.

In Kazakhstan, Kim frequently prescribed IV lasers after he performed abdominal surgeries to fight infections and speed wound healing, because lasers support the immune system; with lasers, he found he was able to shorten his patients' hospital stays. The power of lasers to heal was driven home to him when he, a fiercely devoted surgeon, under constant stress, developed an ulcer and collapsed from internal bleeding. When his gastroenterologist put an endoscope into him, she saw a large ulcer in his duodenum and that there was a serious risk that the acid from his stomach would burn through it, causing it to penetrate through his intestinal wall.

Normally the condition requires emergency surgery, but she began to treat him on the spot: she passed a low-intensity laser down the endoscope and shone it on the ulcer. After only eight such treatments, he was healed, without surgical scarring, which thus protected his digestion. This approach was far less invasive than surgery. Among other ingenious ways to administer light, I have seen an Ontario-manufactured intranasal low-intensity laser deliver light inside the nose (where the blood vessels are close to the surface, and the brain) to rapidly cure a wicked bout of insomnia.

With Kim and Kahn, I saw many remarkable recoveries, which usually didn't start out as brain treatments. One elderly man I met, Allan Hannaford, got treatment because of advanced osteoarthritis of the neck. He also had trouble seeing, because, years before, a stroke in his visual cortex had wiped out parts of his field of vision. Allan's neck improved with treatment. But the surprise was that his field of vision expanded too, because the lights for the neck had been placed close to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. Allan's improved vision has remained.

Kahn and Kim took this approach to a whole new level when they helped treat a young African-Canadian man I'll call "Gary," who had had meningitis (an infection of the tissues that surround the brain) when he was twenty-two, leaving him totally blind and deaf. Inflammation and swelling from meningitis can lead to high pressure on the brain, causing irreversible brain and optic nerve damage. Gary was thirty-two when we met. He had a sweet face and short hair and wore a blue jacket and shirt. He was a warm person and bobbed his head the way singer Stevie Wonder often does. His right eye seemed stuck, looking up at the ceiling.

Gary was accompanied by a longtime friend I'll call "Suzanne." By coincidence, Suzanne was a laser therapist, and one day it occurred to her that lasers might help Gary. Kim and Kahn supervised her and a colleague who treated him. They initially put the lights over the back of Gary's neck. Gary soon began to regain touch sensations around his ears and reported having new pulsations and sensations in the muscles of his face. Then about two months into treatment, astounding things began to happen. He regained some sight.

Since Gary was deaf and blind, the only way I could communicate verbally with him was through the "print on palm technique." I'd ask a question, and Suzanne would write each word on Gary's palm at lightning speed, and he would answer.

"Could you see anything at all before you tried the lasers? I asked.

"I didn't notice anything before. It was dark."

"Could you see shadows?" I asked.


"And since using the lasers?" I asked.

"After I have been using the lasers, now I notice shadows, but it clicks in and out. For instance, after the lasers, I was in the kitchen and I could see the outlining of my mom and my nephew by the window." The ambient light of the window had allowed him to see his first silhouette in a decade. "I can't actually see the faces," he added, "but I can see the brown outline of them moving, then it cuts out."

Gary was overjoyed and overwhelmed with excitement, because he never expected anything of the kind to happen. Hearing this, Kahn recommended that Suzanne cover Gary's entire head and all the lobes of the brain with lights. When we met a second time, after several of these head treatments, Suzanne said that there were changes again, and that Gary had heard his niece speak into his ear. I asked Gary to elaborate.

"I was upstairs with my niece and I said something to her—she kept on coming up to me and hugging me, and her face was beside my face, and she said something, and I went Ah!' because I felt a loud-pitched noise entering my ear. So then I said, 'What did you say?' So she puts her face up against mine and she said something, and I felt a loud high-pitched noise. As soon as she spoke, it was like going through my ears and making me go Ahh!"

For the first time since going deaf, he had heard a human voice, however indistinctly. He also said he had begun to associate vibrations he felt on his body with sounds he was beginning to experience.

At first, most of the sounds were coming in one ear, and but a month later they were coming in both. Though he couldn't yet sort out specific words, he was now able to differentiate how many words were spoken. It hurt Gary to hear—a sign that his brain, which I saw as awakening from learned nonuse, couldn't yet modulate the incoming sensation. His pain is a sign of a hypersensitive system and might be addressed by neuro-plastic exercises I describe in Chapter 8.

I saw many other marvels in the following months. I met with a half-dozen patients who had traumatic brain injuries, from falls, sports injuries, and car accidents. Many had symptoms like Gaby: brain fog, memory problems, fatigue, movement, balance, and vision problems, but also, typically, headaches. All were disabled and not recovering, in most cases for years, until they were treated with lasers. Almost all improved and resumed everyday activities, and those who were not yet 100 percent better said, "I got my life back." In other cases, mood improved. A man who came with a neck problem noticed that not only did it diminish, but his depression lifted, so that he could lower his medication for it. His scores on brain tests improved to the point that he was astonished. (Such cognitive benefits had already been shown to occur with light in a study at the University of Texas, Austin.) Another man, so depressed that he had been on disability for a year, found that with lights his depression lifted, and he was able to go back to work. With the latest data showing that in some cases of depression the brain is chronically inflamed, it makes sense that a treatment that unblocks chronic inflammation could help.

This brings us to the latest area being explored in connection with low-intensity lasers: Alzheimer's disease, the commonest kind of dementia. The Alzheimer's brain is also inflamed, and the mitochondria have difficulty functioning and show signs of aging called oxidative stress, which is a kind of "rusting" of the molecules. Lights, which improve general cellular functioning in the brain, can improve all three conditions—inflammation, mitochondrial problems, and oxidative stress.* The hallmark of Alzheimer's is that the neurons build up excess misshapen proteins, called tau proteins and amyloid proteins, to form plaques that lead to degeneration.

* Inflammation is also a major factor in other forms of dementia. There is general agreement that at least some vascular dementias—the second most common form—are caused by vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels). But evidence increasingly shows that inflammation may play a role in most blood-vessel disease. If so, it would play a role in most cases of vascular dementia. So low-level lasers may be protective for vascular dementia as well.

A team from Sydney, Australia, has lowered levels of these proteins using light. They implanted human genes associated with Alzheimer's into mouse DNA, so that the animals developed abnormal tau proteins and amyloid plaques. Then they treated them for a month with low-level light therapy, simply by holding the light one to two centimeters above the animals' heads. Using the same spectrum of near-infrared light that has helped in traumatic brain injury, Parkinson's disease, and retinal damage, they lowered both the pathological tau proteins and the amyloid plaques by 70 percent in key brain areas that Alzheimer's affects. Thereafter signs of "rusting" decreased, and the mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cells, improved their function.

A second animal study showed that light therapy improves damaged connections between neurons in Alzheimer's by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). We need human studies urgently. In the meantime, it is clear that low-intensity lasers are a powerful way to foster general cellular health in the brain, and, in combination with the exercise regimes and techniques in Chapter 2, and the other measures to preserve general brain health in Chapter 3, make sense.

Throughout this period of immersing myself in the healing power of laser light, I couldn't help noticing the extent to which people deprive themselves of natural light and its benefits. Hospitals often seem recklessly indifferent to the role of light in healing—they no longer have the sunlit courtyards inspired by Florence Nightingale's observation, during the Crimean War, that more patients died in the hospital buildings than in the temporary field hospitals, where they were exposed to natural outdoor sunlight and air. Hospital wards influenced by her work—called Nightingale Wards—had multiple windows strategically placed so patients were exposed to light throughout the day.

Recent studies show that light not only speeds healing but decreases pain and improves sleep; because it improves vitamin D levels, light may also decrease some cancer risks. Today a hospital patient is lucky to have a window with direct sunlight. Increasingly windows in enclosed spaces where people spend the most time, such as cars, apartments, schools, and businesses, are colored to screen out the full spectrum of natural light in order to save money on air-conditioning. Indoors, the flickering, pasty hues of "energy-conserving" cool-white fluorescents illuminate us with a ghostly glow that is so unnatural that some sensitive patients feel ill when bathed by them.

This is not the first time in history that "energy-wise" policies have hurt public health. The Industrial Revolutions use of coal polluted the great cities of Europe and AmeTica, inducing the physician Caleb Williams Saleeby to lament, in the early 1900s, that the "malurbanized millions" lived in darkened cityscapes even when the sun was out. Infectious disease became rampant, which physicians determined was, in part, related to an absence of light—not just overcrowding. In 1905 in New York, tuberculosis infections declined with the introduction of a law restricting coal smoke.

A trend began. Boston passed a "blue sky law," and children with TB were put aboard a floating hospital on a ship, where they could be exposed to sunlight to heal. The Swiss physician Auguste Rollier took patients to the Alps and exposed them to sun in his sanatorium, resulting in remarkable cures. The decisive factor was not just the fresh mountain air; its coolness meant that people could tolerate longer exposure to the sun. All but forgotten are the great strides that were made in heliotherapy, before the discovery of antibiotics in the 1930s, as a way to heal infection and strengthen the patient s own immune system. Now that our overuse of antibiotics is leading them to fail against the resistant organisms they are spawning, we may have to relearn these techniques.

Our skies may be bluer again, but our indoor spaces are ever more deprived of natural light, in ways we cannot perceive, because the counterfeit light we use is often not composed of the frequencies that preserve life. We need full-spectrum light not just for elegant atriums and lobbies for show, but for everyday living and work spaces. The damage caused by living a light-impoverished life is hidden. We can tolerate gloom for a time, but the buoyant joy we feel when we enter light-bathed spaces signals not just an aesthetic pleasure: it is an indication that we require light to flourish.

On October 7, 2012, Gaby wrote: 

"I drove by myself for the 1st time in approx 3 years. I have no problems turning my head or with my hand-eye coordination I will add the highway later on, for now I will use alternate routes."

She wrote me again: 

"All the Will and No WAY: It's very strange. Before I got sick, I always thought where there's a will there's a way. I have since learned even if there's a will, sometimes there's no way. If your brain can't run it, you can't do it. It still surprises me sometimes I apologize for the delay in getting back to you Unfortunately, my father has not been well."

Gaby has begun tutoring again. She drives, sings, lives. Her long, painful, daily dependence on her parents has come to an end, as has their aching, abiding fear for her future, and their heartbreak on her behalf. Now she is pleased to help care for her octogenarian father, Dr. Pollard, and her mother. The customary arrangement of noble obligations between the generations that occurs in tight families such as theirs has been restored. Meanwhile, Fred Kahn hasn't taken a sick day in fifty years. Now eighty-five, he still has things to do.