Using Lasers to Treat Anxiety and Depression

Francisco Gonzalez-Lima and others at the University of Texas at Austin want to add lasers to the list of potential treatment options for people suffering from depression and anxiety. 

Using a low powered (less than 60W) infrared laser, that is invisible to the human eye, the alternative treatment for sufferers of these disorders may be on the way sooner, rather than later. The light is placed directly onto the forehead. The laser then energizes the prefrontal cortex: the portion of the brain that controls decision making and higher brain function. By stimulating this part of the brain, patients have seemingly become more receptive to therapy.

A large portion of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the therapeutic method preferred by mental health practitioners, relies on the patient’s willingness to unlearn poor habits and thought patterns, and replace them with healthier ones. By stimulating the portion of the brain related to decision making, normally resistant patients may feel a greater drive to open up to new possibilities.

According to Gonzalez-Lima, who has served as a member of the University of Texas’ neuroscience program for over 25 years, the process is safe and has no known adverse side effects.

So how exactly does it work? The study focuses on an enzyme found in all cells called cytochrome oxidase. The enzyme consumes oxygen to generate energy. Essentially, the more oxygen that is converted, the more energy that is generated. Shining the infrared laser on the enzyme increases its activity, converting more energy, thus building up energy reserves for neurons to utilize. Targeting brain cells “charges them up,” leading to greater brain functions.  By transforming light into chemical energy, the process is not too different than the brain’s reaction to the prescription treatments. In this instance, however, there are fewer side effects and the cost of long-term treatment could be greatly reduced.

In the study, patients exposed to the infrared laser for just eight minutes showed a greater level of improvement over those who received traditional CBT/pharmaceutical treatments. While the infrared treatments do not cure the ailments overnight, the potential is there for an alternative or simply additional type of treatment for patients who may otherwise be adverse to traditional treatments. When tested on individuals without diagnosed cases of anxiety or depression, there was little change in behavior outside of a small increase in memory retention.

The next step for the study will use the infrared laser with an online therapy program. The program, called Deprexis, uses elements of traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in a digital setting. Depending on the results of the study, the combined treatment could lead to an alternative to anti-depressants, which often come with a laundry list of side-effects and a hit-or-miss track record of effectiveness from patient to patient.

Light therapy, where patients are exposed to a bright light for a set amount of time, is used to treat seasonal depression. Studies to determine its effectiveness for other types of depression have had mixed results, leading many to question their validity as a viable treatment. Gonzalez-Lima wants to push for greater use of lasers in medical industries, saying that the communities are lagging behind dentists and veterinarians in their embrace of laser technology. Calling this new process “photomedicine,” only time will tell if the treatment proves to be effective in the long term.


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