Bright-light headset fights seasonal affective disorder by illuminating the brain
Twelve minutes of light per day through ear canals clearly reduced SAD symptoms
Bright light shining in the ear canal to illuminate the photosensitive areas of the brain really works, suggests the first scientific study on the subject, the results of which were presented at a recent conference.
“A short and easy treatment with a bright-light headset (used much like in-ear earphones) gives as good or better results than traditional bright light therapy”, summarises Juuso Nissilä, the former managing director and the present science and research director of the Oulunsalo-based company Valkee, which has developed the method and the used device.
Traditional bright light treatment takes an hour a day, whereas the bright-light headset is used no more than 12 minutes per day either an hour after waking up or just before bedtime.
But why illuminate the ear canal?
“It was a strange idea from these guys”, says Oulu Deaconess Institute chief surgeon Timo Takala.
“It was laughed at. But it also had a feel of a hypothesis to it. It had to be tested.”
The first study conducted a couple of years ago involved 13 volunteers, who all said that they clearly suffered from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This was also confirmed by their doctors. After four weeks the symptoms had disappeared almost completely.
Another study focused on the brightness of the used light: one, four, or nine lumens? All were effective.
In August this year, researchers at the University of Oulu proved that there are photosensitive cells in various locations in the human brain.
These results are just the beginning, experts emphasised in Helsinki on Tuesday. Regulations for scientific research require, among other things, that similar results have to be achieved with another test group.
“The possible harmful effects also have to be looked into”, pointed out chief surgeon Timo Partonen from the National Public Health Institute and Aku Kopakkala, head of rehabilitation at the private medical clinic Mehiläinen. Kopakkala is a psychologist who is working on his doctoral thesis on the timing of the circadian rhythm, or the body clock, in treatment of depression.
“If the diurnal rhythm is upset by the device, then it will be harmful to health”, Kopakkala explained.
“In Valkee’s case the product was released onto the market first and only afterwards its effectiveness was studied.”
Possible side-effects have been observed, Nissilä replied. They include temporary headache, and sleep problems.
For last winter Valkee produced 6,000 devices, which were all sold in Finland.
This season’s production volume will be five to six times higher, explains managing director Timo Ahopelto. The devices will be sold for treatment of SAD for example in Western Europe and the United States.
Up to 40 per cent of the adult population suffer from SAD during the darkest period of the year. The symptoms include weight gain, sleep disorders, and fatigue.
Valvira, the National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health, points out that there are several different types of lamps out there that are being marketed as bright light treatment equipment.
The ones that comply with the regulations have the CE certification. They have been equipped with the “CE” mark and a four-digit code. Their effectiveness has been proven, their risks have been assessed, and instructions for their safe use have been issued.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Seasonal mood variations are related to light (28.9.2010)
”Winter depression is a disorder of the internal clock” (8.12.2009)
Psychiatrist tackles demons of Arctic winter darkness (3.1.2006)