Light therapy can help lift moods, heal wounds, and boost the immune system. Can it improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, too? A first-of-its-kind trial scheduled to launch this fall in France aims to find out. In seven patients, a fiber optic cable implanted in their brain will deliver pulses of near-infrared (NIR) light directly to the substantia nigra, a region deep in the brain that degenerates in Parkinson’s disease. The team, led by neurosurgeon Alim- Louis Benabid of the Clinatec Institute—a partnership between several government-funded research institutes and industry—hopes the light will protect cells there from dying.
The study is one of several set to explore how Parkinson’s patients might benefit from light. “I am so excited,” says neuropsychologist Dawn Bowers of the University of Florida College of Medicine, who is recruiting patients for a trial in which NIR will be beamed into the skull instead of delivered with an implant.
Small tests in people with Parkinson’s and animal models of the disease have already suggested benefits, but some mainstream Parkinson’s researchers are skeptical. No one has shown exactly how light might protect the key neurons—or why it should have any effect at all on cells buried deep in the brain that never see the light of day. Much or all of the encouraging hints seen so far in people may be the result of the placebo effect, skeptics say. Because there are no biomarkers that correlate well with changes in Parkinson’s symptoms, “we are reliant on observing behavior,” says neurobiologist David Sulzer of Columbia University Irving Medical Center, an editor of the journal npj Parkinson’s Disease. “It’s not easy to guard against placebo effects.”