Dr. Michael Hamblin’s 2018 paper published in Photochemistry and Photobiology explains how photobiomodulation (PBM) works through mitochondrial redox signaling. The Redox Theory is one of two main theories of PBM cellular mechanisms.
There are two hypotheses as to how PBM works.
- Hypothesis 1: The Redox Theory is that light is absorbed in the mitochondria at the cytochrome C oxidase (CCO). Inhibitory nitric oxide disassociates from CCO. This increases the mitochondrial membrane potential.
- Hypothesis 2: PBM activates gated ion channels through a heat and/or a light pathway.
This paper reviews the Redox Theory of the effects of photobiomodulation (PBM). The discussion applies to red light and near-infrared light at low-power PBM therapy.
“Photobiomodulation (PBM) involves the use of red or nearinfrared light at low power densities to produce a beneficial effect on cells or tissues. PBM therapy is used to reduce pain, inflammation, edema, and to regenerate damaged tissues such as wounds, bones, and tendons.” – Dr. Michael R. Hamblin
Laser Medicine that Does Not Use Lasers
The term “laser medicine” became inaccurate when researchers were able to achieve the same effects with non-laser lights.
Lower-power light-emitting diodes (LED) can create the same mitochondrial and healing changes as higher-powered laser lights.
LLLT as Low-Level Laser
Journal authors renamed “laser medicine” to “low-level laser therapy.” That would be fine if an LED were a low-level laser, but it is not. Lasers emit coherent waves. LED emits incoherent waves. Calling an LED a “low-level laser” just confused the issue.
LLLT as Low-Level Light
Recognizing that LEDs are not low-level lasers, authors changed LLLT to mean “low-level light therapy.”
Now, there were two problems. First, previous authors used LLLT to refer to low-level lasers. LLLT would bring up laser and LED studies when searching scientific journal databases. LLLT had two meanings, which confused researchers.
Next, “low-level light therapy” completely drops “lasers,” which is not what we are trying to say.
We are trying to describe the use of light in medicine, whether that light comes from LED or laser sources.
Photobiomodulation: Using Light to Change Biology
A few light and laser medical organizations agreed. In 2016, they officially changed laser medicine, low-level laser therapy, and low-level light therapy to Photobiomodulation (PBM).
PBM uses photons (light) energy to change (modulate) biology.
Photobiomodulation is over 50 years old. Researchers first applied the concepts to wound repair on the skin and in dental procedures.
Researchers initially found success using 694 nm and 633 nm wavelengths, both of which are red. Repeatedly, researchers found frequencies in the red (and infrared range) to heal human and animal biology.
What we now call “Red Light Therapy” (RLT) is the same as “photobiomodulation.” RLT is the commercial term, and PBM is the scientific term.
Laser and LED Effectiveness
Clinicians and consumers can treat scores of problems with light. Researchers have repeatedly found LEDs to be as effective as lasers. Lasers are more powerful and take less time to deliver their effective dose.
Clinicians use both laser and LED devices, while consumers use LED only. Lasers can burn, so they are not consumer devices.
Laser and LED lights are equally effective. Lasers are more powerful, so treatments are faster. LEDs are cooler, so treatments are slower, but consumers can do them at home.
Photobiomodulation Success and Safety
Over 1,000 clinical studies show that PBM is healthy and generally very safe.
PBM is a Goldilocks therapy. The dose must be just right, or the recipient will not get a healing response.
This is because Photobiomodulation has a “biphasic dose-response” that follows the “Arndt-Schulz Law.”
The biphasic dose-response means that:
- A little bit of energy does not work.
- Too much energy does not work.
- The healing dose of energy is in a sweet spot between too little and too much.
- The effectiveness plateau is a range of energy in the sweet spot, and all energy levels within this range have healing effects.
The First Law of Photobiology
For PBM to be effective, the chromophore molecules in the mitochondria must absorb the photons. This is the first law of photobiology.
For example, when the chromophore molecules absorb red nm (nanometer wavelength) photons, the molecules initiate a chain reaction that disassociates nitric oxide, leaving the mitochondria with more oxygen. This gives the body more energy.
The chromophore’s ability to absorb light changes with the light’s wavelengths. Therefore, some wavelengths are more effective than others.
Mitochondrial ATP production creates a healthy response in skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle, neurons, liver cells, kidney cells, and more.
PBM Redox Increases Energy and Absorbs Oxidants
PBM affects reactive oxygen species (ROS). We usually think of ROS as free radicals, but PBM can use them as messenger transports.
Light in the blue color range has the most significant ROS impact because it induces ROS creation without reducing their impact.
Red light induces ROS but resolves its presence before it can harm the body.
When red light produces reactive oxygen species, the mitochondria absorb them. Red light increases energy (ATP), which gives the body’s system energy to heal. The red light absorption process invokes N-acetylcysteine, which in turn, reduces reactive oxygen species.
Thus, red light produces free radicals but disarms them. Red ROS are mediators.
Blue light produces free radicals; at least in some cases, those reactive oxygen species harm the body.
Biphasic Dose Response
PBM can both heal and harm. Dose quantity and frequency determine the biological response.
For example, 780 nm at 50 J cm^2 (infrared light delivered in 50 joules per square centimeter) increases bone tissue to act on osteoporosis and fractures that fail to heal positively.
On the other hand, 650 nm at 50 J cm^2 (red light delivered in 50 joules per square centimeter) decreases bone tissue, worsening osteoporosis, and joint failures.
PBM has a protective effect at multiple levels. For example, 670 nm (red) LED reduces methanol and potassium cyanide neural damage. When the tissues are exposed to 670 nm light before cyanide exposure, the cyanide cannot kill as many cells (the light reduces apoptosis).