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Rewiring the brain with low level light therapy

Monday, June 04, 2018

Renowned Canadian psychiatrist, researcher and author on neuroplasticity, Norman Doidge, has recently concluded a workshop and lecture tour of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

His visit has sparked a surge in interest around his extensive research into the mind-bending territory of neuroplasticity and its many revolutionary clinical applications. 

Cover of Norman Doidge's book

Doidge’s work is centred on the brain’s remarkable ability to heal and reverse damage by itself – incredibly when traditional modern medicine can offer no other intervention or cure.  In these workshops he highlighted evidence of the first reversals in dementia symptoms – a disease that has confounded researchers searching for an effective treatment and ultimately, a cure. 

Neuroplasticity, as Doidge explains, is the term used to describe how the human brain constantly builds new neural connections and pathways as we use our brains to learn and build new knowledge and skills. Things like learning a second language or how to kick a football happen because our brains create a pathway to remember the process, recall the information and replicate it faster each time we do it. The more we use them, these neural pathways become seemingly ‘automatic’, thus explaining how we can become fluent in another language or instinctively kick the ball without hesitation. 

The remarkable discovery in recent times is that these neural pathways are not hard-wired once formed, but rather ‘plastic’, meaning easily malleable, flexible and soft. The brain never stops creating these pathways, and forming new neurons, unless our own rigid thinking prevents it. Rather than being ‘hard-wired’ to do certain things instinctively, our brain can ‘rewire’ itself to create new neural pathways. This idea is especially powerful when, as Doidge investigates, new pathways are generated to bypass damaged, non-functioning cells affected by injury, inflammation or cognitive decline.

In the workshops, Norman Doidge shared some extraordinary advances made in the last two years in clinical applications of neuroplasticity, including the first reversals of dementia symptoms. New insights on why we have two different brain hemispheres are enhancing the medical world’s understanding, and improving treatments for patients by helping them access their own neuroplasticity.

Doidge is a strong advocate for unlocking our very human, mental rigidity that gets in the way of people accessing their own neuroplasticity.

In his widely-acclaimed books, The Brain’s Way of Healing and The Brain That Changes Itself, Doidge highlights several fascinating stories where people have ‘healed’ themselves or significantly reduced symptoms by harnessing the power of neuroplasticity to rewire and reverse damage. One such method was with Low Level Laser Therapy.

 "The healing power of light"


In The Brain that Changes Itself Doidge recounts his first introduction to the clinical application of low level laser therapy in 2011 when he attended a lecture in Ontario given by Fred Kahn, a vascular surgeon, and Anita Saltmarche, a registered nurse. His initial curiosity for the topic of the lecture – light therapy as an effective treatment for patients with conditions ranging from wound healing to brain injury – was replaced with amazement and enthusiasm for the results he saw not just in the speaker’s presentation slides but in the case of a woman named Gabrielle.

When Doidge met Gaby at the same lecture in 2011, she suffered a range of debilitating symptoms resulting from the surgical removal of a benign brain tumour two years earlier. The surgery saved her life, but the damage to her brain left her with numerous symptoms ranging from difficulty eating, walking, speaking, seeing objects not directly in front of her, and she was hypersensitive to sounds and busy patterns. Her brain damage left her chronically exhausted, unable to work, drive, move freely and ultimately care for herself. She was dependent on her elderly parents for care. 

Doidge stays in touch with Gaby and continues to follow her story over the next 18 months. Gaby contacted both Saltmarche and Kahn to see if low level laser therapy could help her. Kahn assured her it would. She had the first laser treatment on her neck, spine and brain in December 2011. After her second treatment, she could already notice significant changes to her concentration and memory. After eight weeks, she emailed Doidge with an excited update. He met her at a Beethoven concert, an activity her hypersensitive brain should have not been able to tolerate, and marvelled that “this woman’s brain was being rewired with light.”

Eleven months later and Gaby was driving for the first time in three years. She also resumed her career as a tutor and began singing with her choir again. It is apparent that Doidge is equally amazed by her story as he imagines the reader will be.

In researching his book, Doidge immerses himself in the healing power of light and uncovers many examples of remarkable recovery and healing, both from ancient history and the current day.  Doidge explains the mechanisms at play when light energy from low level lasers and LEDs interacts with human cells:

Laser light triggers ATP (adenosine triphosphate) production, which is why it can initiate and accelerate the repair and growth of healthy new cells, including those that make up cartilage (chondrocytes), bone (osteocytes), and connective tissues (fibroblasts).  Lasers of slightly different wavelengths can also increase the use of oxygen, improve blood circulation, and stimulate the growth of new blood vessels, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the tissues – especially important for healing.

In the immune system, laser light can trigger helpful forms of inflammation – but only where required.  Where inflammatory processes have become stuck and “chronic”, as happens with many diseases, laser light can unblock the stalled processes and quickly move it to a normal resolution, leading to decreased inflammation, swelling and pain. 

The Brain That Changes Itself, Doidge, Norman, 2015: p140-141

The work of researchers and practitioners in the field of photobiomodulation, or low level laser therapy is indeed mind-bending, miracle-making, reality-busting stuff, with implications, as Dr. Doidge notes, not only for individual patients but for the future of neuroscience and medicine.


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