Using light therapy to treat multiple sclerosis

April 3, 2018
Biomedical Sciences
Jeri-Anne Lyons in the multiple sclerosis laboratory.

Jeri-Anne Lyons in the multiple sclerosis laboratory.

Through a study funded through the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Associate Dean and Professor in the College of Health Sciences Jeri-Anne Lyons, PhD (pictured above), hopes to demonstrate the positive impact of light therapy in treating muscle fatigue in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT) uses red and near infrared light to decrease inflammation and neurodegeneration. Given the recent evidence supporting the clinical benefit of PBMT on muscle function in healthy individuals, Lyons and her co-researchers believe PBMT may also help people with MS.

What is MS?

MS is a destructive disease in which the body’s immune response attacks the nerves in the brain and spinal cord and prevents proper nerve function. The signs and symptoms of MS are unpredictable and highly variable, but many experience blindness, muscle weakness, decreased mental function, tingling in the hands and feet, and limited mobility or paralysis. As of 2015, the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation estimated that more than 400,000 people in the US and roughly 2.5 million people worldwide have MS.

During an attack, or a relapse, the patient’s immune response brings about other mechanisms in the body that play a role in disease progression and permanent disability. The added stress on cells from repeated relapses makes it more difficult for the body to heal itself after an attack. Over time, cellular damage becomes permanent and escalating, which affects systems throughout the body.

Why light therapy?

Current treatments are expensive, only partially effective and can lead to a variety of side effects. These therapies also lose their potency as the disease progresses to permanent disability because they only target the immune response and do not stop the other mechanisms that progress the disease.

Photobiomodulation therapy with far red or near infrared light can be a helpful therapeutic approach because such wavelengths increase energy production by cells and protective anti-inflammatory responses, while decreasing damaging inflammation.

Lyons explained the potential of PBMT as a therapeutic approach to MS. “We’ve already seen success with this treatment in mice. Our experiments showed that mice treated with PBMT experienced less severe clinical disease and experienced fewer relapses than mice not receiving PBMT. As we prepare to move toward clinical studies, we are trying to ascertain whether similar effects are noted on human immune cells.”

Combining scientific approaches

Lyons is working with Alexander V. Ng, PhD, FACSM, associate professor in the Exercise Science program at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. An exercise physiologist, Ng brings his extensive expertise with muscle fatigue to the project.

“Alex’s protocol for measuring muscle function will help us figure out if the light treatment is merely improving circulation or if PBMT can actually improve nerve function in MS patients,” Lyons said.

Lyons and Ng will treat a muscle in the shin with PBMT and assess the participant before and after light treatment to measure muscle function. Because PBMT is known to elicit localized and systemic effects, they will also measure markers in the blood to assess whether or not inflammation decreases following PBMT.

“Light therapy holds a great deal of potential, but it is by no means a ‘magic bullet’,” said Lyons. “Dosage and frequency of treatment is key in this kind of therapy – too little, and patients may not see results. Too much, and there may be adverse outcomes. Our study aims to capture that fine line and reveal what steps may come next for developing PBMT as a viable treatment option for people with MS.”