Can Light in the Ears Cure the Winter Blues or Do You Need a Hole in Your Head?

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"Here in Portland, seasonal depression, commonly called the Winter Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is relatively common. Up to 20% of the population in the rainy Pacific Northwest may be impacted. I"ve written more extensively in another blog about the Winter Blues and how light boxes are an effective treatment.It"s not available in the U.S. yet, but a Finnish company is marketing a new device called "Valkee." It looks like an iPod, except instead of digital music, the headphones shine light into your ear. Yes, that"s right, the Valkee has small ear buds that shine light into your ear.Why would shining bright light in your ear help with seasonal depression? Here"s where things turn a little fuzzy.
Why Light Boxes Work
Perhaps we might start with light boxes, the treatment with the greatest research support for the Winter Blues. With light box therapy, people sit in front of specially-designed devices that give off light at a specific intensity or lux10,000 lux is optimal for bright spectrum white light boxes.
Light serves as a signal to our brain that it"s daytime. The accepted pathway is through our eyes. When light hits our retina, it sends signal to our brains; specifically, the signals travel to an area called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This area controls our circadian rhythms or internal clock.
The shorter days and dark mornings of the fall and winter months, particularly in northern latitudes such as Portland, can lead to a desynchronization between our internal clock and our actual day. Light box therapy is a way to fix this. Regular use of a light box before dawn can signal to the brain that it"s time to get up and start our day, even though it"s dark and cloudy out.
Here we have a well-researched pathway and mechanism of action: daylight in our eyes signals to the brain that it"s time to get up, cueing up our circadian rhythms (aka our internal clock). Why would shining a light in our ears be a more effective pathway? This is unclear to me. It"s not as if we spend our summers tilting our heads so that the sunlight can stream into our ears.
But Valkee Makes Some Pretty Unlikely Claims
The company cites results from research studies that suggest their device has some very impressive outcomes. Perhaps a bit too impressive. For example, one article claims that "92% of people with SAD achieved full remission" from depression. If you"re familiar with depression research, a 92% responseparticularly with "full remission"is an incredible claim. As a point of comparison, with light box therapy, the most well established treatment, about 60-70% of people respondand here we"re talking about decreases in depressive symptoms, not necessarily full remission.
Should I Buy a Valkee?
From what I"ve seen, I"d hold off on exchanging your hard-earned dollars for euros and plunking down your hard-earned money (185 or $240) for a Valkee. (It"s not available in the US yet.) The plausibility for the why it works is unclear, and the research supporting its effectiveness is very limited. I could wrongperhaps future research will show that shining light in your ears is a more effective treatment for the Winter Blues than light boxes. However, the Valkee may be little more than an expensive flashlight. And it doesn"t even play MP3"s."

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