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Burst of light

It may sound too good to be true. The application of bright red light on the skin or cells at the laboratory setting produces an instant energy boost that could help in wound healing process, in pain relief or even, perhaps in the management of male infertility and other medical conditions.

The “strange” healing effect has been known for many years, while since 2002 the possible application in eye injuries is under investigation, although the exact mechanism of actions remains a mystery. It turns out that the explanation may be quite simple and yet strange: the red light seems to alter the physical properties of water, resulting in turbocharging the chemical reactions that provide a cell’s energy.

The first reports regarding the effects of near-infrared light with a wavelength of 670 nanometres were made in the late ’70s. Light promotes the production of adenosine triphosphate (ΑΤΡ) by mitochondria, the cell’s powerhouses.

Until now, the best explanation was that an important respiration enzyme called cytochrome C is affected by the near-infrared energy. Now we know light absorption is not conducted at quite the right frequency.

Thinner than water

Dr Sommer and his colleagues underline the importance of water found within the cells. Under normal conditions the layer of water next to any solid object has high surface tension, making it more viscous.

According to the results of the research team’s studies, when surface layers of water are illuminated with red light, the distance between each water molecule is increased, making the liquid become “runnier”.

Mitochondria receive energy from an enzyme bound into their membranes. This particular enzyme spins like a molecular turbine, and being surrounded by runnier water it facilitates rotation, resulting in the generation of more ATP.

As it is difficult to measure the quantity of water within a living cell, Dr Sommer and his research team measured the effect of near-infrared light on the thin layers of water, through the study of friction on a diamond probe as it pushed through water and into a metal block.

The application of light on the water reduces the force needed to push in the probe by 72%. As mentioned by Dr Försterling from Philipp University of Germany, this constitutes the first explanation regarding the possible mode of operation of light and it is of particular importance.

Wound healing with light

Other research groups are also investigating this phenomenon as a way to speed up the healing of skin wounds and to repair eye burns. Moreover, it may be able to reduce pain and inflammation in subcutaneous tissues, i.e. tissues underneath the skin, too, while other teams are investigating the possible positive effect of light in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Dr Sommer underlines the fact that a better understanding of how red light affects cells should make it easier to expand its medical uses.

At the same time, Dr Gagsteiger, expert in IVF treatment, reports that red light may possibly be used for the strengthening of men’s sperm so that to achieve fertilisation. This is the reason why scientists have already started investigating the effects of sperm irradiation with near-infrared light before fertilisation. The goal is to strengthen the sperm so that to increase its chances to reach and fertilise the ovules.


Source: New Scientist

Picture: Dr Sommer

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