Deep-red light improves eyesight in older people says new research from UCL

A new study from University College London (UCL) is suggesting that people of a certain age could improve their eyesight by staring into a deep red light for three minutes a day. The research is published in the Journals of Gerontology and could help the 12 million people in the UK aged  over 65.

Prof. Glen Jeffrey of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and lead author of the report is quoted as saying: “As you age your visual system declines significantly, particularly once over 40. Your retinal sensitivity and your colour vision are both gradually undermined, and with an ageing population, this is an increasingly important issue. To try to stem or reverse this decline we sought to reboot the retina’s ageing cells with shorts bursts of longwave light.”

From the age of around 40, the mitochrondria within the retina start to decline. It’s the job of the mitochondria to boost cell function and to produce energy, known as ATP (adenosine triphosphate). The photoreceptor cells within the retina have a high energy demand. It’s the reduction in ATP production, by up to 70% over the life of a person, that results in significant decline in our eyesight.

The new research built on previous studies using mice, bumblebees and fruit flies that showed improvements in retinal response when their eyes were exposed to 670nm (long wavelength) deep red light.

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

An example of the torch used in the UCL study

The age range for participants for the study was from 28 – 72, and balanced between male and female. None of the participants reported any pre-existing ocular disease. Measurements were taken of rod and cone performance and each participant was given a small LED torch to use at home for two weeks, They were asked to look into the deep-red 670nm light beam for 3 minutes each day. Rod and cone sensitivity were then retested after the two weeks.

The results

While the 670nm light had no impact in younger participants there were significant improvements in those above 40 year of age.

Cone colour contrast sensitivity improved by up to 20%, with noticeable improvements in the blue range – the area of the visible colour spectrum that is more vulnerable as we get older.

Rod sensitivity also improved significantly in the same age group, though less than the colour contrast of the cones.

Prof. Jeffrey: “Our study shows that it is possible to significantly improve vision that aas 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. 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.”

Warning: there are already lots of red torches already on the market, used by hunters, astronomers and other special interest groups. The available information from UCL doesn’t specify the intensity of the torch that was used in the research. As the commercial market gets hold of this news we need to take care that we’re not causing damage by over-exposing the retina to inappropriate equipment.

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