Known as the powerhouses of cells, the ability of mitochondria to produce ATP molecules wanes over the years. The photoreceptor cells of the retina require a large energy supply in order to perform their function. Thus, the shortage of ATP contributes to the decline in light and color perception associated with age.

Now Glen Jeffery and his team at London College are proposing a simple and inexpensive strategy to revitalize mitochondrial activity: exposing the eyes to a red light beam for 3 minutes a day.

The study, published by The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, involved 24 volunteers between the ages of 28 and 72. Each of them received a LED diode flashlight, capable of emitting electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of 670 nanometers. That is, in the range corresponding to the color red within the visible spectrum. Over the course of 2 weeks, each morning the subjects illuminated their pupils with the light beam for 3 minutes.

At the end of the experiment, the researchers evaluated the visual function of the participants and compared it with the data obtained before exposure to crimson light.

Preliminary, but hopeful results

Photoreceptors, the neurons in the retina that specialize in converting perceived light into nerve impulses, divide into rods and cones. The former provide information about colors, while the latter detect the intensity of light.

Thus, to determine the sensitivity of the volunteers’ canes, the scientists prepared a series of graphs with slightly blurred colored letters on a slightly contrasted background, which made their identification difficult. Said sensitivity improved between 10 and 22 percent in subjects older than 38 years. The effect was more noticeable in canes specialized in perceiving the blue color, the most vulnerable to the effects of aging. Exposure to red light also moderately increased the ability of the cones to perceive faint flashes in the dark. The vision of the young, on the contrary, did not undergo any change.

Animal work suggests that mitochondrial function improves when these organelles absorb wavelengths between 650 and 1,000 nanometers. Jeffery and his collaborators do not know which elements of the mitochondria catch the red light, but they are hopeful with the finding. From the age of 40, the sense of sight experiences a clear deterioration and the proposed treatment could reverse the effects of aging. However, they are cautious and recognize the preliminary nature of the study.

Marta Pulido Salgado

Reference: “Optically improved mitochondrial function redeems aged human visual decline”, by H. Shinhmar et al., In The Journals of Gerontology: Series A; glaa155, published June 29, 2020.

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