Boxing and football put him in a fog, light therapy gave him his life back
A study of collision athletes at the University of Utah department of neurology indicates an infrared light therapy called transcranial photobiomodulation helps relieve the symptoms of brain trauma
He was at his parents’ house and saw a picture of his aunt on a funeral program and asked if she died. “Last week,” his mother told him. “You were there at the funeral.”
He was at his neighborhood Walmart and couldn’t remember how to get home; he had to plug his address into his phone for directions to get back to his house.
He was losing his mind.
For years it was bad; now it was worse. At the ancient age of 43, Christian Smith, former boxer, former college football player, decided he was going to leave his home in Arizona, go back to Arkansas where he was from and check completely out of polite society.
“I had to get away from people,” he says, “I figured I’d buy some land, put myself in a loincloth and live out my days. I’d given up.”
* * *
Then he got a text message.
It was from a neighbor of his parents back in Utah, who sent him a news article about a former football player named Larry Carr who believed he had found a therapy that could help relieve the symptoms of brain damage, i.e. concussions, endemic to collision athletes. At Carr’s urging, the University of Utah was conducting a clinical trial to test the merits of Carr’s claims and was looking for volunteers.
With his bags already packed for Arkansas, Christian emailed Carr, begging to be admitted to the trial. His email consisted of one word: Please, Please, Please, Please, Please, Please.
The next thing he knew, he was on his way to Salt Lake City instead of Little Rock.
Christian joined 49 other volunteers in the study, mostly former football players, but a variety of others, including soccer players, hockey players, and women who had experienced domestic abuse. The common thread: a history of debilitating mood swings and diminished cognitive capability.
All were put through an MRI and a battery of tests measuring such things as processing speed, impulsivity, cognitive processing, memory and reaction time. Each was sent home with a headset that sends infrared light into the brain through a process called transcranial photobiomodulation. That’s the therapy Carr credits with rescuing him from the living hell he negotiated for decades due to the brain damage he suffered when he was a star linebacker for BYU back in the day.
A living hell Christian recognized well.
This month marked the year mark since the clinical trial began. Christian and the others returned to the neuroscience center at the University of Utah to be tested again.
Without exception, “significant improvement” was measured for the study participants in every category.
No one had to tell Christian he had significantly improved.
He admits he was skeptical a year ago, when he left the testing center and brought home the Star Trek-looking headset he was instructed to use for 20 minutes three times a week.
“I thought I might be able to tell the future or find other aliens in the world,” he says, “what I didn’t know is if I believed it would do anything else.”
But after five weeks, “I felt I’d gone back 20 years,” he says, “the wind was at my back. I could feel parts of me, my brain, again.”
Better yet, as the months progressed, the renewed good feelings did not go away.
A year ago, he took what is called the X test. It’s a simple test where the person being examined is put in front of a laptop and told to hit the space bar as fast as possible every time a letter of the alphabet appears on the screen. With one exception. When it’s the letter X, do not hit the bar.
“You think it’s going to be so easy,” says Christian, “I remember thinking, ‘OK, can we do this and then get to the important tests?’”
But it wasn’t easy. Try as he might, he couldn’t stop himself from hitting the space bar multiple times when the X appeared. “I think I hit it probably 15 times, I failed miserably. I was so upset. And you can see how that test relates to real life because when something happened (in the past) my reaction was not what it should have been, just like hitting that X. I knew the rules were not to hit it, I knew what I was supposed to do, but I did it anyway.”
When he took the test last week, he didn’t hit a single X.
“The X test, I kicked its butt,” he beamed as if he just threw a 50-yard touchdown pass.
More importantly, the temper outbursts, the impulsiveness, the forgetfulness, the anxiety, the despair, have dissipated to a large degree.
“That fog I lived in, that emotionless zombie state, it’s just gone,” he says.
To those conducting the study at the University of Utah, the results of Christian and the others are encouraging, to say the least.
“It wasn’t just an occasional here and there who indicated it worked for them. It was really consistent across the board. That’s exciting,” says the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Elisabeth Wilde, who has been working with traumatic brain injury concussions for over 20 years.
She continued, “When you interact with these people, and see what it does for them, and you see the difference in them, it’s striking. And again, self-reporting is one thing — when people tell you they’re feeling better, I think it really does tell you something very important. But when you can objectively see it on measures of strength and processing speed, it puts it at a different level. We also did some brain imaging and are hoping to do some things with other objectives, biological measures, to learn more about how it might be working or what’s the mechanism underlying why this seems to help people.”
For Christian, the headline isn’t the why, it’s his new reality.
“It’s not a miracle drug, I’m still not perfect,” says the former boxer and football player who spent years leading with his head. “But I’m in control again and I’m enjoying life. I feel positive that I can contribute, that I have value again, that I am worth something. To me it is a miracle. You don’t realize how bad you were until you get good again.”