Multi-Watt Near-Infrared Phototherapy for the Treatment of Comorbid Depression: An Open-Label Single-Arm Study

Front Psychiatry. 2017 Sep 29;8:187. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2017.00187. eCollection 2017.


Background: The treatment of depression has been hampered by low efficacy of antidepressant medications and safety concerns with alternative modalities. Recent work demonstrated that multi-Watt transcranial near-infrared light therapy (NILT) can effectively treat traumatic brain injury (TBI). The current objective is to explore multi-Watt NILT efficacy in a proof-of-concept study as a treatment for depression.

Methods: Thirty-nine sequential patients treated for TBI between March 2013 and May 2017 provided depression self-assessment data and/or were administered the Hamilton depression rating scale. Each completed the Quick Inventory of Depression Symptomatology-Self Report (QIDS) before and after treatment. Patients received multi-Watt NILT using near-infrared lasers (810/980 nm at 8-15 W) applied to forehead and temporal regions bilaterally for 9-12 min to each area. Pre- and posttreatment scores were analyzed by paired t-tests.

Results: All met QIDS criteria for mild to severe depression and 69% had prior antidepressant trials. For 36 of the 39 patients, after 16.82 ± 6.26 treatments, QIDS scores indicated a robust response (decrease of QIDS total score by ≥50%). For 32 of 39 patients, posttreatment QIDS scores indicated a remission from depression (decrease of QIDS total score ≤5). Overall, the QIDS score fell from 14.10 ± 3.39 to 3.41 ± 3.30 SD (p = 6.29 × 10-19). With 12 or fewer treatments, QIDS score dropped from 14.83 ± 2.55 to 4.17 ± 3.93. Patients receiving ≥13 treatments showed a change in QIDS score from 13.67 ± 3.64 to 3.11 ± 3.14. Those (N = 15) who received the entire treatment course within ≤8 weeks (5.33 ± 1.72 weeks) showed a change in QIDS score from 13.86 ± 3.14 to 4.5 ± 3.94. Suicidal ideation resolved in all, but two patients. Patients remained in remission for up to 55 months after a single course of treatment.

Conclusion: This is the first report of high-powered NILT showing efficacy for depression. Multi-Watt NILT showed far greater efficacy and persistent benefit compared to low-power (<1 Watt) infrared light treatments. Patients saw benefit often within four treatments and resolution of depressive symptoms occurred within 4 weeks for some. These data raise an intriguing possibility-that multi-Watt NILT may be a safe, effective, and rapid treatment for depression comorbid with TBI and possibly primary major depression disorder. A double-blind, placebo controlled trial is warranted to verify these proof-of-concept data.

Keywords: antidepressant; laser; major depression; near-infrared; near-infrared light therapy; photobiomodulation; suicidal ideation.