First discovered in the 1990s was the curious healing powers of infrared (IR) light. Doctors found therapeutic uses for IR in treating a wide range of diseases and has since been commercially marketed in the form of commercial infrared heaters. The exact mechanism of IR therapy however, has been elusive but studies found that it has a lot to do with turbo-charging the mitochondria.
The power-house of the cell!
Classically known as the ‘power-house’, the mitochondria is a bean shaped structure found inside cells. They are responsible for producing energy in our body in the form of ATP molecules. After a meal, our mitochondria begins to process sugars triggering the rotation of the turbine-like machine present on its surface, known as the “VTPase pump”. The VTPase pump begins to spin which provides the mechanical energy required to make ATP molecules. Studies with IR therapy found that upon exposure, more ATP molecules are produced suggesting an increase in VTPase pump efficiency. Whether or not this is a direct cause of an enhanced pump rotation is however unknown.
Slow like molasses
A team led by Andrei Sommer of the University of Ulm in Germany has set on to try and understand how exactly the use of IR leads to the increased ATP production. The team proposed that in its natural state, the pump rotates at a lower rate than when IR is used. Sommer’s explains that the pump is surrounded by ‘sticky’, ‘non-flowy’ water which hinders its rotation, similar to an egg beater spinning in molasses. They predict that upon IR exposure, this sticky, viscous water becomes more ‘flowy’ and less-viscous, allowing the pump to spin at a faster rate.
In testing their prediction, the team used a small, fine, solid diamond tip probe to measure changes in water ‘stickiness’. They did this by placing the probe on top of a metal block which has a thin layer of water to recreate the natural environment of the VTPase pump. They then measured how much force was required to push the probe through the water and into the metal block. It is expected that viscous water is harder to push into than a less-viscous solution. Sommer’s team found that upon exposing the setup to IR, the force required to push the probe to the block decreased by 72% clearly demonstrating changes in water viscosity; became more ‘flowy’ and less viscous. Sommer’s observation improves the current explanation for how IR may induce healing by enhancing ATP production through the VTPase pump, essentially ‘turbo-charging’ the mitochondria.
By reducing water viscosity, the VTPase pump is able to produce more ATP/energy for growth and rejuvenation. It then comes to no surprise why IR has been applied to treat people with eye diseases which are known to be caused by mitochondrial defects. It has also been shown to eliminate mucositis which often develops in mouths of children undergoing chemotherapy, providing them added comfort in an otherwise hostile situation. In more recent applications, IR therapy is being investigated in treating Parkinson’s disease. In recent studies using fiber optics, it was shown that shining IR in the brains of live mice protected their brains from the effect of the MPTP drug. The MPTP drug is a neurotoxin capable of inducing Parkinson’s disease, further attesting to the healing properties of IR. It has also been hypothesized to improve in-vitro fertilization by energizing sperm cells which are lacking in energy to swim far enough for fertilization. With all these current and potential applications, Sommer’s work has been heralded as “highly significant” which explains how light might work in IR therapy. The team also hopes that this finding will lead to a shift in the paradigm of ATP synthesis.
Sommer, A. P. et al. Light Effect on Water Viscosity: Implication for ATP Biosynthesis. Sci. Rep. 5, 12029; doi: 10.1038/srep12029 (2015).