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Declining Eyesight Improved by Looking at Deep Red Light

For Immediate Release
June 29, 2020

Contact: Todd Kluss
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Staring at a deep red light for three minutes a day can significantly improve declining eyesight, finds a new UCL-led study, the first of its kind in humans.

Scientists believe the discovery, published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, could signal the dawn of new affordable home-based eye therapies, helping the millions of people globally with naturally declining vision.

“As you age your visual system declines significantly, particularly once over 40,” said lead author Professor Glen Jeffery of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology. “Your retinal sensitivity and your color vision are both gradually undermined, and with an aging population, this is an increasingly important issue. To try to stem or reverse this decline, we sought to reboot the retina’s aging cells with short bursts of longwave light.”

In humans around 40 years-old, cells in the eye’s retina begin to age, and the pace of this aging is caused, in part, when the cell’s mitochondria, whose role is to produce energy (known as ATP) and boost cell function, also start to decline.

Mitochondrial density is greatest in the retina’s photoreceptor cells, which have high energy demands. As a result, the retina ages faster than other organs, with a 70 percent ATP reduction over life, causing a significant decline in photoreceptor function as they lack the energy to perform their normal role.

Researchers built on their previous findings in mice, bumblebees, and fruit flies, which all found significant improvements in the function of the retina’s photoreceptors when mice were exposed to 670 nanometer (long wavelength) deep red light.

“Mitochondria have specific light absorbance characteristics influencing their performance: longer wavelengths spanning 650 to 1000 nm are absorbed and improve mitochondrial performance to increase energy production,” said Jeffery.

The retina’s photoreceptor population is formed of cones, which mediate color vision and rods, which provide peripheral vision and adapt vision in low/dim light.

For the study, 24 people (12 male, 12 female), aged between 28 and 72, who had no ocular disease, were recruited. All participants’ eyes were tested for the sensitivity of their rods and cones at the start of the study. Rod sensitivity was measured in dark adapted eyes (with pupils dilated) by asking participants to detect dim light signals in the dark, and cone function was tested by subjects identifying colored letters that had very low contrast and appeared increasingly blurred, a process called color contrast.

All participants were then given a small LED flashlight to take home and were asked to look into its deep red 670 nm light beam for three minutes a day for two weeks. (Participants placed their eye over the end of the flashlight. Eyes could be closed, as the red light is not filtered by the eye lid.) They were then re-tested for their rod and cone sensitivity

Researchers found the 670 nm light had no impact in younger individuals, but in those around 40 years and over, significant improvements were obtained.

Cone color contrast sensitivity (the ability to detect colors) improved by up to 20 percent in some people aged around 40 and over. Improvements were more significant in the blue part of the color spectrum that is more vulnerable in aging.

Rod sensitivity (the ability to see in low light) also improved significantly in those aged around 40 and over, though less than color contrast.

“Our study shows that it is possible to significantly improve vision that has declined in aged individuals using simple brief exposures to light wavelengths that recharge the energy system that has declined in the retina cells, rather like re-charging a battery,” Jeffery said. “The technology is simple and very safe using a deep red light of a specific wavelength that is absorbed by mitochondria in the retina that supply energy for cellular function. Our devices cost about £12 to make, so the technology is highly accessible to members of the public.”

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The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences is a peer-reviewed publication of The Gerontological Society of America (GSA), the nation's oldest and largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to research, education, and practice in the field of aging. The principal mission of the Society — and its 5,500+ members — is to advance the study of aging and disseminate information among scientists, decision makers, and the general public. GSA’s structure also includes a policy institute, the National Academy on an Aging Society, and an educational unit, the Academy for Gerontology in Higher Education.

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