I have been thinking a lot about sleep - and waking - in the context of Parkinson's lately. Sleep is a major issue for people with Parkinson's and is inherently tied into the biological nature of the disease. Deb Helfrich, who helped me start the Out-Thinking Parkinson's project, spent a lot of time researching this topic and discovered some very interesting science. However, for some unknown reason this particular branch of Parkinson's Science seems to have been buried in the literature, even though clinical trials show the resulting therapy is remarkably effective - and not just for improving sleep, but for major reduction of symptoms overall and neuroprotection from further degeneration.
What Deb unearthed for us was the work of Dr Greg Willis and his Bronowski Institute. Here are some of Dr Willis's papers which she found, studied and then helped me to also understand their implications:
Our research then led us to discover that many, many workers have found similar positive results, and continue to do so:
Now, I'm willing to bet the vast majority of people involved with or affected by Parkinson's Disease have never heard of this work? In fact, I have found that, whenever I've mentioned it, very, very few people have heard of Light Therapy for PD. Disturbingly, this includes many neurologists I've raised the subject with. I say "disturbingly" because the many works listed above are not published in obscurity. Did you spot that one of the above papers was published in Nature, for example?
Willis' understanding of the mechanisms of Parkinson's Disease is a little different from the standard, accepted picture. He argues that it is not just about the lack of production of dopamine but that the balance between dopamine and melatonin, the substance responsible for making us sleepy, is whats broken. It is this imbalance, he argues, which can cause many of the symptoms of PD. so it's not just that there isn't enough dopamine in the system, but there is actually too much melatonin, relatively speaking.
Willis' idea for a solution based on his working hypothesis is simple - as well as using drugs to replace the dopamine, he uses bright lights to reduce the melatonin. His treatment plans use strategic applications of lights, of the right frequency at the right time of day for the right duration, to attack melatonin and deplete it, restoring the balance with dopamine. His published results speak for themselves and he has data now including from people with Parkinson's he has been treating this way for years. According to what we took from his papers for ourselves... it works! Central to Willis' arguments is the role of the stimulation of the retina. This ties in with a lot of my own work which emphasizes the role of visual stimuli in learning how to move again.
Even the benefits of strategic light therapy "simply" for improving sleep - which is typically chronically disrupted in people with PD - should not be understated. This because it is during periods of good sleep when the brain clears itself of waste products and the body repairs itself. Therefore for people who are already neuro-compromised, broken sleep and the resulting build of toxins in the brain is a fast track to a vicious circle of further degeneration.
For more of our articles on this subject please see: