Low-Level Light Therapy Shows Promise for Treating Parkinson's Patients, Say U.Va. Health System Researchers

June 22, 2009 — Low-level light therapy holds potential for improving neuronal cell function in patients with Parkinson's Disease, according to a new study from the University of Virginia Health System.

Published online by Molecular Neurodegeneration on June 17, the study is the latest in a series of articles by researchers at the U.Va. Morris K. Udall Parkinson's Research Center of Excellence about promising new treatments for re-energizing the cellular engines of patients with Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Led by Patricia A. Trimmer, associate professor of neurological research at the U.Va. School of Medicine, the in vitro study showed that a single, brief treatment with a 810-nm, low-level, near-infrared laser increased for two hours the velocity of mitochondrial movement in cells taken from patients with sporadic Parkinson's Disease, speeding it up to levels comparable to cells from a disease-free, age-matched control group.

"Our findings provide early-stage confirmation that low-level light therapy has the potential to improve neuronal function in many patients with Parkinson's Disease and other neurological diseases," Trimmer said. Interestingly, the most dysfunctional patient cells had the weakest response to the light therapy. The therapy had no impact on healthy control group cells.

Mitochondria are the cellular engines that transform food into fuel in our bodies and perform their work in the energy-intensive tissue of our brains, retinas, hearts and skeletal muscles. In Parkinson's Disease patients, mitochondria become metabolically and functionally compromised. Cells slow down, become ineffective in generating energy and over-produce oxygen free radicals. If produced in excess, oxygen free radicals chemically attack all cell components, including proteins, DNA and lipids in cell membranes.

As Trimmer points out, numerous investigational Parkinson's Disease drugs have demonstrated efficacy in animal models but proven largely ineffective in humans. By contrast, low-level light therapy is already being used to treat a wide range of human conditions involving injury and inflammation. It has also been evaluated in Phase 2 clinical trials as a way to ameliorate the consequences of stroke.

The study's co-authors were Kathleen M. Schwartz and M. Kathleen Borland of the Morris K. Udall Parkinson's Research Center of Excellence at U.Va., Luis De Taboada and Jackson Streeter of PhotoThera Inc. and Uri Oron of Tel-Aviv University in Israel.

This story originally appeared on the U.Va. Health System Web site.