It starts as a sadness, then I feel myself shutting down, becoming less capable of coping. Eventually I just feel numb and empty. 

— Mind (UK mental health advocacy group)

This visceral description of depression captures only one of the many faces of the illness, which may range from apathy to agitation, from restlessness to hopelessness. It’s not known exactly what causes depression, but what is certain is that the disease—estimated by the World Health Organization to affect more than 300 million people globally (an underestimate given there are the people who don’t admit to depression or have not sought treatment)—is not being adequately addressed.

There is a $48B global depression treatment market [1]. Antidepressant medication is currently the first-line treatment for depression, but “people with depression often reject the idea of taking medication,” according to Niraxx Co-Founder Paolo Cassano, MD, PhD. He also serves as an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of Photobiomodulation at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Neuropsychiatry.

“So you have a clear need,” he says, “and yet there is a mismatch between the treatments we have and what people are willing to accept.” Dr. Cassano says.

He and experts at MGH Wellman Center for Photomedicine believe photobiomodulation can provide a new approach to relieving depression.

Why Photobiomodulation (PBM)? 

One theory is that disturbances of energy metabolism in the brain may contribute to a person developing depression. The thinking is that the brain uses more energy than any other organs, consuming 20% of the body’s total energy, therefore low brain energy can negatively impact the brain’s ability to carry out its activities. Photobiomodulation shines infrared light on the brain to stimulate neurons to produce more energy.

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Promising Results 

Early results from an 8-week double-blind, sham-controlled study have shown encouraging results. The Elated 2 Pilot Study is comprised of 21 subjects with major depressive disorder (MDD). The conclusion finds most of the patients who received transcranial photobiomodulation (t-PBM) with near-infrared (NIR) light experienced significant improvement in mood—”t-PBM with NIR light demonstrated antidepressant properties with a medium to— large effect size in patients with MDD”—compared to those who received a “sham” treatment in which they wore the device but received no light.

Dr. Cassano believes these findings support the therapeutic use of near-infrared light on the brain, particularly for patients who either did not tolerate, respond to, or accept conventional neuropsychiatric treatments.

Statements from Dr. Cassano in the article are taken from an article published on Massachusettes General Hospital’s website. To read more, click on the link: “Depression Research Focuses on Infrared Light.” 

Resources
[1] Analysis Group report
[2] Cassano, P. et al. (2018). Transcranial Photobiomodulation for the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder. The ELATED-2 Pilot Trial. Photomedicine and Laser Surgery, XX, XX, pp. 1-13.