Ear Tool May Cure Seasonal Affective Disorder

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

There is a new, offbeat, research-based treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a.k.a. the wintertime blues, that involves light — and if you’re thinking, well, I’ve heard that one before… I assure you, you have not. This first-of-its-kind tool consists of lights that you shine into your ears, which send a “get going” signal to the photosensitive part of your brain that produces the feel-good chemical serotonin. Two small earbuds are connected by a wire to a lightweight device that looks like an iPod, and just eight to 12 minutes of daily use has been shown to banish SAD symptoms quite effectively.


Common SAD symptoms include depression, anxiety and loss of energy. While the exact mechanism that causes SAD hasn’t been pinned down, it’s known that reduced exposure to natural outdoor sunlight (like during winter months) disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm (the internal body clock) while also decreasing production of serotonin. Scientists believe that both genetic and environmental factors, including living in the Northern hemisphere, put certain people at higher risk than others.

Most people with SAD respond well to a traditional treatment that involves putting your face in front of a special type of light for about an hour a day, but now new research from Finland, presented in Budapest in November at the International Forum for Mood and Anxiety Disorders, reports better results in far less time when light is delivered to the ears. To understand this better, I contacted the study’s lead author, Timo Takala, MD, PhD, chief physician at Finland’s Oulu Deaconess Institute.


Since the brain is sensitive to light — not just the eyes — Dr. Takala and his team wondered if light therapy might work if it was directed at the brain through the ears. He said that we receive sunlight through the ear canals (and actually through the skull bone, too), not just through the visual system. This had led a Finnish manufacturer, Valkee, to develop a device that delivers light therapy directly into the ears via earbuds equipped with light-emitting diodes (LEDs). The light used in the Valkee headset is similar to the kind used in traditional therapy, except that it’s brighter. Dr. Takala’s team was engaged by Valkee to test the device’s efficacy.

Study: In one of the clinical trials, researchers studied 13 men and women who were suffering from SAD. Each participant received light in both ears from a Valkee headset in the morning for eight to 12 minutes at a time, five times a week for four weeks. At the beginning of the study and at the end of each week, participants’ SAD symptoms were self-reported using standard surveys for depression and anxiety.

One major finding: At the end of the study, which took place during the dim months of January and February in Finland, 77% of people achieved “full remission” of depression symptoms and 92% saw at least a 50% reduction. The same statistics were true in terms of anxiety. It’s important to note that this was a small study, there was no control group (so the placebo effect can’t be ruled out), and the ear light therapy was not compared with traditional light therapy. But Dr. Takala said that prior research has shown that traditional light treatment for one hour daily eliminates depression in about 60% of patients.


Dr. Takala thinks that based on this preliminary data, ear light therapy may be more effective and certainly less time-consuming than traditional light therapy because the light used is more intense. He said it’s also more convenient, since you can do other things more easily while wearing earbuds.

In any case, Dr. Takala suggests that people with SAD who want to try the earbuds start with 12 minutes of ear light use 30 to 60 minutes after awakening in the morning five times a week. If symptoms don’t improve after five days, try them for an hour or two before bedtime instead. While it should be mentioned that some users reported headache, nausea and dizziness while using the Valkee headset, Dr. Takala noted that those side effects also can occur in some people just from being exposed to natural sunlight. He added that using the device for shorter periods usually eliminates these side effects while still relieving symptoms. And in case you were wondering, like traditional light therapy devices, the ear light device blocks potentially harmful UV rays.

Right now, the Valkee headset is available only in Europe, the only place where it is approved for use as a medical device. Valkee is looking into getting regulatory approval in the US, and Dr. Takala thinks that within the next year the device may be sold here, too. If you’re interested in buying the product, talk to your doctor first — and bring this article with you, because the device is new and he/she may not know about it yet. You could buy a Valkee headset online through third parties — such as on eBay, where they were recently offered for around $200 to $300. Or if you know a friend going to Europe, you could save on shipping by asking him/her to bring one back for you.

This device does sound like a bright idea — I’m interested to hear the FDA’s take on the product and see if future research confirms these findings.


Timo Takala, MD, PhD, chief physician, Oulu Deaconess Institute, Finland.