Since 1990, thousands of veterans, press, and government employees who participated in the first Gulf war have reported symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome. Short term memory loss, poor concentration, and an inability to take in information — collectively referred to as cognitive dysfunction — rank high among the most frequently reported signs of the illness. Today, a group of researchers at the VA Boston Healthcare System are testing the effects of light therapy on veterans who continue to experience cognitive symptoms.

Though investigational, the therapy has been used before by some alternative medical practitioners for physical symptoms. In this case, veterans wear a helmet lined with light-emitting diodes (LED) that apply red and near-infrared light to the scalp. Past studies have shown the light boosts output of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow, wherever the LEDs are placed. During treatment, veterans also have diodes placed inside their nostrils, to deliver photons to their brain.

Painless, the light also generates no heat. A single treatment takes about 30 minutes.

“It's always been used on the body, for wound healing and to treat muscle aches and pains, and joint problems,” Dr. Margaret Naeser, lead investigator of the new study and a research professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, stated in a press release. “We're starting to use it on the brain.”

(Not) In Your Head

More than 175,000 cases of Gulf War Syndrome have been reported in the United States; however, in the earliest years, health authorities refused to acknowledge veterans’ illness as anything other than a psychological problem. Commonly reported symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Persistent headaches
  • Muscle aches pains
  • Neurological symptoms, such as tingling and numbness in limbs
  • Cognitive Dysfunction- short-term memory loss, poor concentration, inability to take in information
  • Mood disturbances, including depression and anxiety
  • Insomnia and sleep disorders
  • Skin rashes
  • Unusual hair loss
  • Respiratory symptoms, including persistent coughing, bronchitis, asthma
  • Chemical sensitivities
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea, constipation, nausea, bloating
  • Cardiovascular symptoms
  • Menstrual symptoms

After great bitterness between veterans and health authorities, a government-appointed committee studied the syndrome and released its findings in 2008. The committee’s report said a clear link existed between the syndrome and exposures to specific chemicals, including pesticides, the nerve-gas sarin, and pyridostigmine bromide (an anti-nerve gas drug). When exposed to these chemicals, some people run a much higher risk for developing symptoms due to genetic variations which impair enzyme function, the report stated.

“Psychological stressors are inadequate to account for the excess illness seen,” commented the committee's chief scientist, Dr. Beatrice Golomb, after analyzing more than 100 studies relating to Gulf War illnesses.

Looking Ahead

To validate LED therapy as a viable treatment for Gulf War Syndrome symptoms, Naeser provides MRI scans to show how LED therapy increases blood flow in the brain. The treatments also appear to spur the mitochondria within damaged brain cells to produce more ATP, a type of chemical energy used by cells. Naeser says exposure to pesticides or other neurotoxins could impair the mitochondria in cells.

Last June, Naeser and her colleagues published study results in the Journal of Neurotrauma on the use of LED therapy in 11 patients with chronic traumatic brain injury. Neuropsychological testing of the volunteers before and after treatment showed significant improvements in executive function, verbal learning, and memory. Volunteers also reported better sleep and fewer symptoms of PTSD.

Someday, light therapy may be used to treat conditions such as depression, stroke, dementia, and even autism, Naeser said, adding, “We're just in the beginning stages right now.”