Staring at Red Light for 3 Minutes Appears to Improve Eyesight in Over 40s

Scientists believe shining a special red light in the eye could help improve age-related vision problems.

The study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences involved 24 healthy men and women aged between 28 to 72 years old. The 12 participants who were over 38 were considered "older" as aspects of our vision starts to decline around the age of 40.

The researchers asked the volunteers to shine a deep red light, which gave off a specific wavelength, into their dominant eye every morning for three minutes for two weeks. This was to test whether this would boost their mitochondria, or powerhouses of cells, and combat age-related decline in vision.

By examining the participants' eyesight before they used the light, the team found that the performance of what are known as rod and cone photoreceptors, which help to process light, had declined significantly in those aged about 40 and above.

In this age group, shining the light improved their ability to detect different colours—particularly those involved in seeing blue, which suffers disproportionately when we age—by approximately 22 percent.

However, the technique had no effect on the younger participants. And none of the participants reported any subjective changes in their vision, the authors said.

The study was limited because the sample size was relatively small, the authors wrote. But they said the improvements were still statistically significant.

As we age, the mitochondria—what are essentially the batteries of our cells—stop working properly. This means the cells in the eyes lack energy and our vision deteriorates, Co-author Professor Glen Jeffery of the U.K.'s UCL Institute of Ophthalmology told Newsweek.

In previous studies involving flies, bees and mice, the team showed that shining deep red light of specific wavelengths appeared to charge up the mitochondria and improve vision.

Jeffery was surprised by how strong the impact of the light was in their human subjects, how quickly it worked, and the simplicity of the approach.

"Western populations are ageing rapidly and this is going to be a major issue in the future. We need to gear up for this," he said. "If you can't see clearly you can't read or watch TV. You also tend to fall down and break bones. Our lights and their application in ageing is a step in this direction."

There is potential for similar approaches involving the mitochondria to be used on conditions where these powerhouses fail, such as Parkinson's, he said.

However, Jeffery said there are currently no appropriate devices that people can buy to replicate the results at home.

"I strongly suggest that people do not just go and buy a red light off the web," he said. "They have to produce the right wavelength and be reliable. We are looking for a commercial partner to do this and to price them at under around $20 to $25."

Janis T. Eells, Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who did not work on the study, told Newsweek the study was carefully designed using state of the art assessments of cone and rod function.

Eells said she was surprised that "only two-weeks of treatment resulted in significant changes."

However, she said the study was limited due to its sample size, and it's not clear how long the changes would last. It may be the case that repeat treatments are needed.

Eells said the study confirms the importance of the mitochondria in the retina. Age-related retina diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration are linked with problems with mitochondria, meaning they are a promising target for treating retinal disease, she said.

"I would encourage people to share this information with their eye doctors and administer light treatment under the supervision of their eye doctor," said Eells, but said people could damage their retina if they tried the technique at home.

This article has been updated with comment from Janis T. Eells.