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

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 lux—10,000 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% response—particularly 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 respond—and here we’re talking about decreases in depressive symptoms, not necessarily full remission.

Let’s Take a Look at Valkee’s Research

The Valkee website has a tab for “Evidence,” listing research studies. If the device is as incredibly effective as the company suggests, you might expect to find citations in high-ranking peer-reviewed journals where other researcher could look over the results and study them. Respected scientific journals serve as a gateway for quality research.

Instead, the only citations for the device are from conference poster presentations. Curiously, the poster presentations are all from 2011. There’s nothing wrong with poster presentations, but you don’t need a high quality study for a conference to accept a poster presentation. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to present posters at conferences for studies that they haven’t yet conducted (as a way to get feedback).

[UPDATE 03/2014: Someone at Valkee has since pointed out since I wrote my orginal post a few years ago that they have expanded the research section on their website. The research does not alter my overall opinion, but I wanted to note that there are more studies listed. ]

[UPDATE 9/2014: We have written another article on the Valkee in light of new information on the device since this article was written]

Normally with any scientific treatment, there is a period of testing and refinement before it’s made available to the public. With the Valkee, we have a slick-looking device that was released before any research has been published.

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 wrong—perhaps 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.

Brian Thompson Ph.D.

Author: Brian Thompson Ph.D.

Brian is a licensed psychologist and Director of the Portland Psychotherapy Anxiety Clinic. His specialties include generalized anxiety, OCD, hair pulling, and skin picking.

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