Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Hanging Out in the Red Light District

A couple of years ago hoofbeats carried an uncritical article on "DIY Light Therapy". Since then they have continued to display full page colour advertisements for Dr McLaren's Photonic Therapy. By EoR's calculations, that's a fraction under $A10,000 worth of advertising so far.

You could purchase the Equine Kit ($US585) or save money and buy The Works ($US910). Strange that you have to pay for it when it's a "complimentary therapy". Here's Dr McLaren's bio:
Dr Brian McLaren is a clinical scientist, a veterinary surgeon and the highest qualified acupuncturist in Australia, with postgraduate university qualifications both in veterinary and human acupuncture. He is a Fellow of the Australian Natural Therapists Association and a Member of the International Society for the Study of Pain. His Master's Degree thesis scientifically explained what an acupuncture point is and how it came to be there and how acupuncture actually works. He is currently undertaking a Doctor of Philosophy degree, with the University of Queensland, researching the treatment of Glaucoma by Photonic Therapy. Brian has received accreditation, from the Federal Government, for the instruction of a series of approved qualifications. His instruction in, and granting of, these qualifications have allowed the establishment of a series of McLaren Photonic Therapy clinics throughout Australia.

Impressive qualifications indeed (though, as EoR has pointed out previously, educational accreditation in Australia does not take into account the actual syllabus, only the accounting procedures and so on - you can apparently teach any lunacy you like and be accredited).

So how does Photonic Therapy work?
McLaren Photonic Therapy utilizes broad band 660nm red light to provide the photons required to painlessly, and safely stimulate tissue. Visable light is a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum and ranges between 400-700nm. Wavelengths below 400nm (ultra violet) have high energy and do not penetrate deeply into tissue but can cause damage, such as melanomas. Above 700nm, in the infrared range there is less energy per photon, and longer treatment times are required.

Dr McLaren puts his vast university education to good use, and can spout all that danged physics talk with the best of them. The best part is it's all accurate. Red light is indeed 660nm on the electromagnetic spectrum. Dr McLaren also mentions various organisms that can sense electrical potentials or infrared light though, for the life of him, EoR can't see the relevance (doesn't Dr McLaren specifically state above that he's not concerned with infrared light, or electrical activities, only a funky red light?). Legerdemain, however, has always been an essential skill of the snake oil salesmen.
McLaren Photonic Therapy has been successfully used to treat thousands of clinical cases in animals, painlessly, and without the risks associated with skin penetration. Also it is without the risks around the eyes, associated with the use of lasers. Because Photonic Therapy works so well on animals, it obviously does not rely on a psychosomatic, hypnotic, or placebo effect, but is a valid therapeutic modality.

Dr McLaren also needs to research how alternative therapies appear to work in animals. Confirmation bias, self-resolving conditions, return to mean etc etc all play a part. As a scientist he should understand that he shouldn't be making sweeping statements about his particular form of magic until it's been tested (preferably in double blind trials - though EoR presumes you'd have to blindfold the practitioner) and been peer reviewed and replicated. That, of course, hasn't happened yet, but why would you bother when there's apparently such a huge market for this miracle device (which, sadly, doesn't even come with a free set of steak knives). EoR wonders where all these magic penlights are going though? He's yet to see anyone (veterinary or amateur) flashing the magic photons at either themselves or their animals.

There's a longer (but generally more incoherent) explanation here. EoR admires the way he's worded it to attract both the pseudoscientific credulous public as well as the alternative magic credulous public:
Photonic Therapy is the marriage of 1990’s diode chip technology to simple, proven, though ancient diagnostic concepts, to alter electrical fields in the skin to stimulate healing, increase immune response and pain relief.

Essentially, Dr McLaren's hypothesis (for that is all it is) seems to be that the application of light to the skin transfers energy to cells (EoR finds this plausible, though his biochemistry is not up to scratch, and would also be interested to know just how much energy is transferred, or whether Dr McLaren has even bothered to measure it), but that this then somehow surges through the body's accupressure points, avoiding Good Cells and Seeking and Destroying Bad Cells, and cures ills and aches (EoR finds this a large leap of illogic and not plausible at all in the light (ho ho) of two centuries of scientific study).

This "certified" practitioner explains the theory a little more clearly (EoR uses the term loosely, you understand):
When placed on the skin, this red light is transformed into electrical energy by the connective tissue under the skin. This electrical energy is then transmitted to the brain by the nerves. The brain sends signals to release particular hormones and neuro-chemicals depending on the combination of points stimulated by the light. These hormones and neuro-chemicals relieve pain, increase immune response, and promote healing.

So, the brain knows exactly where the pain is, and sends the healing neurochemicals there. Or else the obfuscation about "acupuncture points" is just bullshit. Or maybe a bit of sunlight will do just as well. But hang on, there's more clever medical techniques used to ensure this therapy succeeds:
During a diagnostic examination, specific areas on the animal's body are physically stimulated by applying a quick flick to the skin by a blunt instrument, such as a round-ended pen. A response suggests to the practitioner where there may be a health concern. Additional areas are tested for confirmation.

This sounds like the charlatanism practiced by horse chiropracters: poke a horse on its back and it will flinch (as would you) but tell the owner this is a sign of "the back being out" or "the hips being out" or "wandering ribs" or some such made up diagnosis. The paying public loves that sort of stuff and the only really difficult part about it is keeping a straight face.

Researching a little further, EoR found that Dr McLaren did not discover this revelatory healing modality on his own, but in partnership with a Rodney Torkington. Somewhere they seem to have had a spat, and gone their separate ways though both are, to all intents and purposes, selling the same red penlight as a Marvellous Medical Device. Normally, EoR would consider Mr Torkington's $A325 version an absolute ripoff, but in comparison to Dr McLaren's horrendously overpriced product (think of the profit margin - the likes of Bill Gates can only drool in envy) he seems a samaritan of health.

Mr Torkington provides the facts of his torch (generally unrelated and disconnected facts about lasers, that people are using his device, that NASA apparently funded some study to look at something similar proves it works and so on). Strangely, some of the phrases are the same as on Dr McLaren's site (though at least Mr Torkington mentions Dr Mclaren - his name seems to have been expunged from Dr McLaren's site). The FAQ provides further fascinating details:
Q. Can I do any harm if I stimulate the wrong point if I use the acupoints as a guide?
A. No, it will register as a nil response. The non-coherent monochromatic red light from the Photonic Torch is safe. It is no stronger than a 40 mw light globe.

Q. Do I continue with my medication while using the Photonic Torch?
A. Yes, you certainly do. Red Light Photostimulation using our Photonic Torch is a complementary therapy. It may be used on its own or with prescribed pharmaceuticals. It is not as effective when combined with prescribed cortisone.

Q. Does it cure most disorders?
A. No. We do not make any such claims. Red Light Photonic Stimulation using LEDs does not replace competant medical consultation. It is a complementary or adjunctive therapy. The majority of common conditions can benefit from this new technology. Problems such a bacterial infections or malignant tumors certainly need conventional medical treatment.

Sooo... It's a low power light source... And EoR still needs to continue conventional treatment... And it doesn't cure anything... Tell me again why I should pay money for this? Ah, but it "boosts the immune system". Whatever that means.

Now, while it doesn't cure anything look at the conditions it can be used for (notice, conditions it can be "applied" to, not conditions it can "cure"), including (spelling preserved)
Arthrititus [...] Situational stress [...] Hormonal and reproductive conditions [...] Cystic ovaries [...] Glavccma [...] Hapatitis [...] High Blood Pressure [...] Low Blood Pressure [...] Menopause [...] Multiple Sclerosis [...] Parkingson's [...] Weakness

EoR does applaud Photonic Healing for having their Disclaimer clearly visible on their front page:
The Torkington Photonic Torch is a tool. No healing power of any kind is claimed or implied other than by testimonial.

On Dr McLaren's site you have to go looking for his disclaimer and specifically click on a link to view it:
The McLaren Photonic Therapy unit, of itself has no healing power of any kind, and no claim as such is made or implied. No warranty is given or implied as to the effectiveness or otherwise of this form of treatment or the formulae offered. As the method of application in using the light is out of McLaren Photonic Therapy’s control, no responsibility is accepted for any treatment effects, condition progress, or sequel arising after treatment.

EoR just wants to repeat that: has no healing power of any kind. None. Zero. Completely useless. But buy it anyway. Dr McLaren needs to maintain his well-funded retirement.

As to the NASA proof of the effectiveness of these little miracle lights, NASA Space Technology Shines New Light On Healing provides some further information. The results appear to relate mainly to surface sores and ulcers, though the device tested is remarkably unlike the McLaren Miracle Light:
The wound-healing device is a small, 3.5-inch by 4.5-inch (89-millimeter by 114-millimeter), portable, flat array of LEDs, arranged in rows on top of a small box.

It also appears to have an effect on cancer. But only when used surgically. And only to affect photodynamic drugs which, strangely enough, are affected by light, as opposed to the multitudinous other conditions this device can be "applied" to.
Quantum Devices altered the surgical probe to emit longer wavelengths of red light that stimulate a photodynamic drug called Benzoporphyrin Derivative.

EoR doubts very much whether these little lights have any therapeutic use at all (and he's not alone, given the wording of the disclaimers on the sites), but he is certain that these woo-lights are massively overpriced. If you're really determined to do acupuncture on yourself with a torch, save some money for real medical treatment, and buy a handy keychain light (so you never lose it for those acupuncture emergencies) for $US9. If you're really determined to spend lots of money on one, try the Pocket Knife with 128mb USB drive, LED torch, and scissors for $A53.10. The only problem you'll have is deciding what to do with the $US850 you've saved.

Or, if you've got access to a USB cable, a LED, a wire coat hanger, and some insulation tape, you could make your own USB LED light. Or, buy a back issue of Australian Sky and Telescope and follow the "Make a red LED torch" project.

And for more about LEDs, go ask the Bad Astronomer.


  1. The only healing light I trust is the sort in Seiken Dentensu 3, and only for hitpoint restoration. You need different spells to heal other afflictions.

  2. This blog post is as old as the hills, but I thought I'd leave my response for others who fall in to see it like I did, while researching Photonic Therapy. I thought the "magic red light" was a con item and was nothing more than expensive hocus pocus. 'With mine own eyes', I saw it help several horses. One of the horsees belonged to my best friend, and the horse had been holding up one leg for two weeks while we and verious good vets tried to figure out his ailment. Nothing helped, and he was about to be turned out to pasture as an old age horse. Then, at a horse fair event, I facilitated the horse getting three on-site treatments from Doc McL. over three days. After walking into the tent on the third day limping badly on the bad leg, that horse walked out of the treatment area on all four feet, was being ridden the next day, and never took a lame step again! I could'nt believe it, but I saw it happen with my own eyes. No one had access to the horse at any other time during those three days, and he was not on any medication.

    I've seen slow-to-heal wounds heal much faster on horses, people, and dogs, I've seen horses stop collicing, sore muscles made unsore, and more. I don't know how they work, but they do. I'm no airy fairy believer. I'm a totally grounded, western raised rancher who does not believe in ghosts, palm readers, or magic red lights. But- these photonic torch things do work. No lie!

    Sandy L. in Colorado

  3. EoR wonders why you were 'researching' photonic therapy since you are already convinced it works?

    Personal observation and anecdote are not proof (particularly when, as you imply, there is a psychological bias to want to see an improvement).

    EoR has personally seen wounds heal faster than he expected, and colics resolve, all without any treatment at all. He has also seen colic resolved by beating a horse on the stomach with a wooden stake. That 'worked' too, but he wouldn't recommend it.

    None of these anecdotes are controlled. The wound healed faster than what? An identical control wound? Or faster than you thought it might? What other variables from all these reports were eliminated. It sounds like some at least had a number of observers. Have you been able to prove that it wasn't actually the combined healing intention of the observers that healed the animals by working on them on a quantum consciousness level?

  4. And that's the issue isn't it? Once you abandon science, nothing can be discounted. It might be aliens or fairies. Or maybe the horse's biorhythms were just in sync that week. Who knows?

    I'd go with fairies since I don't believe in aliens or biorhythms - or little torches.


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