Science Scope

Shine light into your ears if you're feeling S.A.D.

Posting in Cancer

By illuminating the ear canal, a device can reduce symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. As winter sets in, a light might be the answer to winter blues.

As winter approaches, S.A.D.-ness sets in. Literally. But there's a new way to beat the winter blues and it doesn't involve popping Prozac pills or require a prescription - just light.

A company called Valkee makes a headset that can shine light directly into a person's ear canal to treat S.A.D., short for seasonal affective disorder. S.A.D. is a type of depression, most often experienced in the winter when there is less natural sunlight.

The medical gadget is marketed to treat mood swings, circadian rhythm disorders, mild lethargy, and depression.

This week, Finnish scientists announced the results of two clinical trials at International Forum for Mood and Anxiety Disorders in Budapest involving the bright-light headset. Both studies demonstrate that shining light into the ear canal may be effective in treating the blues.

"We presented earlier that the human brain is sensitive to light. These two clinical trials demonstrate that channeling bright light via ear canal into brain's photosensitive areas effectively prevents and treats seasonal affective disorder," Juuso Nissilä, Valkee's co-founder and chief scientist, said in a statement.

Knowing that the eye's retina has photoreceptors that convert light into signals that stimulate biological processes, researchers have previously shown that shining a light directly on brain tissue has the same effect. The brain has 18 sites with photoreceptor proteins, where serotonin and melatonin production and storage occur.

The company claims that it only takes 8-12 minutes per day of using its special earbuds to reduce S.A.D symptoms. Other devices that shine light may take an hour of treatment per day.

The first study showed that 92 percent of the patients were cured of seasonal affective disorder. Recovery from S.A.D. was measured by the self-rated BDI-21 questionnaire.

In the second, a four week long clinical trial, 80 percent of the 89 people in the study who suffered from severe SAD, were cured from the winter blues. Half of the participants improved their anxiety symptoms.

After using the device, users report having more energy and less jetlag.

The headset has been certified as a medical device under EU regulations. The headset was first launched in August 2010 and was funded by Esther Dyson, Anssi Vanjoki and Jyri Engeström in December 2010.

Previous research has shown that light therapy is just as effective as antidepressants. Light was shown to affect the same areas of the brain targeted by drugs.

Photo credit: ANTTI AIMO-KOIVISTO LEHTIKUVA

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure