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Looking at a bright red light would bring aging retinas back to life.

In the UK, researchers have found that fixing an intense red light for a few minutes a day can improve vision in people over 40 years of age.

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The retina’s getting old.

As we get older, we can expect the performance of different parts of our bodies to deteriorate, but not all at the same rate. The retina is an example of an organ that ages earlier than most, but a new study has shown how a form of intense red light therapy can help prevent this. By targeting the eyeball with the right wavelength of light, it has been found to “recharge the energy system” and bring significant improvements in vision in people over 40 years of age.

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The study conducted at University College London (UCL) examined the potential for manipulating the performance of mitochondria, which are often considered the powerhouses of cells. As they do in all cells of the body, mitochondria act as the energy factory of the cells in the retina by producing the energy-rich molecule, adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

The age at which vision impairment begins.

The photoreceptor cells of the retina have particularly high energy requirements, and it is therefore there that we find a high density of mitochondria. This contributes to the disproportionate rate of age-related eye decline, which begins to accelerate around the age of 40 and leads to a significant decline in photoreceptor function.

With age, your visual system declines significantly, especially after the age of 40,” says lead author Glen Jeffery. “Your retinal sensitivity and colour vision are both gradually eroded, and with an aging population, this is an increasingly important issue. In an attempt to halt or reverse this decline, we have sought to revive the aging cells of the retina with short pulses of long-wave light”.

The red light works on animals.

UCL researchers had previously conducted experiments in which they found that exposing the eyes of mice, bumblebees and flies to 670 nanometres of deep red light significantly improved their vision.

Mitochondria have specific light absorption characteristics that influence their performance: longer wavelengths, ranging from 650 to 1000 nanometers, are absorbed and improve the performance of mitochondria to increase energy production,” explains Professor Jeffery.

Conclusive human trials.

The researchers then turned their attention to human subjects. This series of experiments involved 24 healthy participants, aged 28 to 72, who were examined at the beginning of the study. The aim was to test the sensitivity of the retinal rods, which manage peripheral vision and low-light scenarios, and its cones, which are used for colour vision.

All subjects were given a small LED flashlight that emits a deep red beam of 670 nanometers, and were asked to examine it for three minutes a day for two weeks. Follow-up testing revealed that the therapy had no impact on the youngest subjects, but provided significant benefits for those 40 years of age and older.

Good news and affordability.

The ability to detect colour improved by 20% in some of these subjects, with the most significant gains observed in the blue part of the spectrum, which is most likely to decline with age. Stick sensitivity was also significantly improved in individuals 40 years of age and older, but not to the same extent. This study was published in the Journals of Gerontology.

Our study shows that it is possible to significantly improve declining vision in older people by using simple brief exposures to the wavelengths of light that recharge the declining energy system in the cells of the retina, much like recharging a battery,” says Jeffery. “The technology is simple and very safe, using deep red light of a specific wavelength, which is absorbed by the mitochondria of the retina that provide energy for cell function. Our devices cost about 13 euros to manufacture, so the technology is very accessible to the public”.

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