Transcranial Photobiomodulation to Improve Cognition in Gulf War Illness

Paula I. Martin, Linda Chao, Maxine H. Krengel, Michael D. Ho, Megan Yee, Robert Lew, Jeffrey Knight, Michael R. Hamblin, Margaret A. Naeser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Introduction: Approximately 25–30% of veterans deployed to Kuwait, 1990-91, report persistent multi-symptom Gulf War Illness (GWI) likely from neurotoxicant exposures. Photobiomodulation (PBM) in red/near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths is a safe, non-invasive modality shown to help repair hypoxic/stressed cells. Red/NIR wavelengths are absorbed by cytochrome C oxidase in mitochondria, releasing nitric oxide (increasing local vasodilation), and increasing adenosine tri-phosphate production. We investigated whether PBM applied transcranially could improve cognition, and health symptoms in GWI. Materials and Methods: Forty-eight (40 M) participants completed this blinded, randomized, sham-controlled trial using Sham or Real, red/NIR light-emitting diodes (LED) applied transcranially. Fifteen, half-hour transcranial LED (tLED) treatments were twice a week (7.5 weeks, in-office). Goggles worn by participant and assistant maintained blinding for visible red. Pre-/Post- testing was at Entry, 1 week and 1 month post- 15th treatment. Primary outcome measures were neuropsychological (NP) tests; secondary outcomes, Psychosocial Questionnaires, including PTSD. Results: Primary Analyses (all participants), showed improvement for Real vs. Sham, for Digit Span Forwards (p < 0.01); and a trend for Trails 4, Number/Letter Sequencing (p < 0.10). For secondary outcomes, Real group reported more improvement on the SF-36V Plus, Physical Component Score (p < 0.08). Secondary Analyses included only subjects scoring below norm (50%ile) at Entry, on specific NP test/s. Real and Sham improved at 1 week after 15th treatment; however, at 1 month, only those receiving Real improved further: Digit Span Total, Forwards and Backwards; Trails 4, Number/Letter Sequencing; California Verbal Learning Test-II, long delay free recall; Continuous Performance Test-II, False Alarm Rate; and Color-Word Interference, Stroop, Trial 3, Inhibition; Sham group worsened, toward Entry values. Only those with more post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptomatology at Entry, receiving Real, continued to have additional PTSD reduction at 1 month; Sham regressed. Conclusion: This study was underpowered (n = 48), with large heterogeneity at Entry. This likely contributed to significance or trend to significance, for only two of the NP tests (Digit Span Forwards; Trails 4, Number/Letter Sequencing) and only one general health measure, the SF-36V Plus, Physical Component Score. More subjects receiving Real, self-reported increased concentration, relaxation and sleep. Controlled studies with newer, transcranial LED home treatment devices are warranted; this is expected to increase enrollment. Clinical Trial Registration:, identifier: NCT01782378.

Original languageEnglish
Article number574386
JournalFrontiers in Neurology
Publication statusPublished - 21 Jan 2021


  • Gulf war illness (GWI)
  • LLLT (low-level laser/light therapy)
  • cognitive function
  • light-emitting diode (LED)
  • photobiomodulation (PBM)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Neurology (clinical)


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