Shining a (red) light on Parkinson’s disease
Professor John Mitrofanis of Sydney Medical School
Infrared heat lamps for treating aches and pains have been part of the home medical arsenal for more than half a century. But now it looks like red light can do more than soothe muscles; it can reinvigorate brain cells and may stave off Parkinson’s disease.
Professor John Mitrofanis of the Sydney Medical School has been researching the use of infrared light in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, with great success.
“Infrared light has been used for a long time as an analgesic of sorts, to relieve pain,” he says. “Even the ancient Egyptians had a sense of the healing properties of coloured lights.”
John’s interest in Parkinson’s disease was serendipitous.
“My first love was exploring brain circuitry, figuring out how little bits of the brain work. I was focusing on a small area and hadn’t yet figured it out, when I heard that some surgeons had stuck an electrode in that exact region by mistake and discovered that stimulating this part of the brain gave relief from symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.”
The revelation gave John the explanation for the latest part of his brain-mapping puzzle. Instead of continuing to ‘fill in the blanks’, he decided to concentrate on this new group of brain cells and undertake research with the aim of clinical application. Supported by funding from the Tenix Foundation, he went looking for a treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
Hypothesising that infrared light might slow or stop the progression of the disease, he tested the light on mice, to assess feasibility on a living animal. As mice don’t suffer from the disease naturally, it had to be induced.
“The mice provide a good model for Parkinson’s disease, as their brains show the pathological circuitry of the disease, but they display no tremor or major movement disturbance. You wouldn’t think they were disabled at all.”
Exposing these mice briefly to a red light once a day had an extraordinary effect. It helped the brain cells survive and stopped cell death. Furthermore, bathing in the red light had no side effects, such as one might expect with a medication. Far from causing distress, the light seemed to soothe the mice.
“They appeared very sedate and calm when they were under it,” he says. Infrared light treatment has been shown to assist cell survival in a range of brain pathologies.
“In animal models of Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, retinal degeneration and traumatic brain injury, infrared light has improved cell survival and function. It’s quite far-reaching and seems to work on the same principle of stopping damaged cells from dying. If you cause damage to a cell by any means, the red light will activate something within that cell to help it survive.”
Because the technology behind these amazing results is so simple, John says the biggest problem at the moment is getting people to believe him and his university colleagues, Professor Jonathan Stone and Dr Daniel Johnstone.
“Even when I first heard about infrared light treatment I thought, ‘that can’t be right’.”
As the treatment works using a light anywhere along the infrared wavelength of 600-1000nm, his results have been achieved by shining a lamp with a red globe. As far as non-invasive therapies go, it doesn’t get much more harmless than that.
“It’s a protective thing. It’s like boosting the batteries of the cell. And there are no reports of the red light having any toxic effect.”
At the start of 2014, John began collaborating with a French group to trial infrared treatment in monkeys. His colleague Professor Alim-Louis Benabid is the pioneer of the main surgical treatment of Parkinson’s disease, namely deep brain stimulation, which involves implanting an electrical pulse generator in the brain.
“With Parkinson’s disease, a specific group of cells in the brain begins to die. We suspect that in the majority of cases a toxin is involved in harming the cells, but we haven’t identified it yet. Unfortunately, most people only present symptoms when the disease has progressed quite far, and about 70 percent of these cells have already died.”
The diagnosis usually occurs once patients develop a tremor, slow down or become clumsy because intricate movement becomes difficult.
Until now, there has been no treatment to stop or slow down the progression of the disease. As John puts it: “We haven’t been able to stop cells dying.”
Current medications only address the signs of the disease.
Parkinson’s disease is not considered fatal. Although life expectancy is a little shorter than average, individuals with Parkinson’s disease can live a relatively long time, but their lifestyle is severely compromised. Thus, the burden of the disease is drawn out.
Tenix Foundation is the major funder of John’s work, and he is “forever grateful” for this support.
Over the past decade, the foundation has done more than just assist him in seeking new treatments for a debilitating disease, it has helped build the next generation of medical researchers.
“Without the foundation’s support, the higher degree students who come through my lab wouldn’t have the opportunity to go on with their studies,” he explains. “Tenix funds their places.”
Michael Lindsay, the foundation’s director, expresses the pleasure his organisation receives from being able to support John and his team of dedicated scientists as they work towards a cure for Parkinson’s disease.
“The team has progressed their research with tenacity and professionalism over the years,” Michael says. “We are delighted that a relatively simple and inexpensive treatment may provide relief for patients in the future.”
This story, written by Aviva Lowy, was first published in INSPIRED Giving, 2013. Read more great stories in INSPIRED Giving.