Follow up on the Valkee device that shines light in your ears.

This post is a follow up to something one of our researchers wrote two years ago about a device called the “Valkee” that shines light into your ears using a device that looks a lot like an iPod. The device supposedly cures seasonal affective disorder and is now being marketed in the USA. I felt the need to post an update to alert consumers to this device that uses slick marketing, but which does not appear to have produced any direct evidence to show that is more than a placebo in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder.  Here’s what we said about it two years ago:

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.

In the two years since we originally posted about this device and in the seven years since it was first created, the company has yet to generate any data showing that the device works better than a placebo for seasonal affective disorder. Placebo controlled trials are not that hard to do and the lack of such research is very concerning. Placebo effects can be quite strong and because of this effect, it can sometimes be hard to know whether a device works because it actually works, or just because people think it will work. In the case of the Valkee, the existing evidence points to the idea that the device works only because people expect it to work. 

Thus, my recommendation is, if you are suffering from seasonal affective disorder, save the money you would have spent on the Valkee and use it instead to buy a more affordable and much more proven light therapy device. We review some of them here. If you want to read more about the controversy around this device, you can read more herehere, and here

BTW, whenever I see a device or treatment that I’ve never heard of before, I always Google the name of that treatment and the word “scam” in Google. This applies whenever I see something new, in the service of being an informed consumer. If you google the item plus the word scam, you may find a range of relevant articles that can help you better evaluate whatever it is. Don’t believe us about the Valkee, do your own research before you make a purchase. Google “Valkee scam” and read what comes up.

Update 11/4/14: A Valkee-related team appears to have published their first trial designed to compare the Valkee to a placebo for seasonal affective disorder. The results showed that the Valkee was no better than what was identified as the placebo condition during trial registration. See the published study here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4207317/ and here: http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01293409)?

I also found a new page where different people are discussing the Valkee device, in case you want to read more: http://tech.eu/features/215/valkee-conundrum-ive-shining-bright-light-brain-weeks-now-dont-know/

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.

Why you shouldn’t buy a light therapy device from Costco (how to find a good light therapy device)

Here in Portland, up to 20-30% of the population suffers from decreased mood and fatigue during the dark and cloudy days of winter. This has been called the “winter blues” and more serious variants of this are typically called Seasonal Affective Disorder.  By a long shot, the most well researched and effective treatment for this kind of seasonal depression is light therapy. Light therapy is fairly simple and typically involves sitting in front of a special kind of light every morning. It works really well and most people respond within in two weeks of beginning the treatment. If you have symptoms of seasonal affective disorder or the “Winter Blues” you should seriously consider getting light therapy device.

Unfortunately, the manufacture and sale of light therapy devices is completely unregulated by the government. This means that there are a lot of people out there buying devices which are not effective and who may end up concluding that light therapy does not work for them, when actually they bought a poorly-made device. It’s not easy to tell scam light therapy devices from legitimate ones, but below I’ll give you some tips that might help.

Typically, a good light therapy device is a little expensive. If someone is selling you a broad spectrum light therapy device for under $150, you should probably be suspicious (though there are some exceptions). It’s likely that it has not been manufactured to the standards used in the research studies and could be ineffective or potentially dangerous for your vision. Tested devices are typically 10,000 lux (a measure of intensity) and should say something about being “broad spectrum” and have shielding from harmful “UV rays.” It’s the UV rays that are put off by fluorescent lights that can harm your eyes.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest sellers of questionable light therapy devices is Costco. I was at Costco the other day and was able to take some shots of the product they are selling:

It would be hard to tell why this device won’t work, unless you know a bit about light therapy devices and also look at the small print below:

Fortunately, they actually specify how much light it is emitting so that you can tell that it won’t work. The light above only provides 4,500 lux at 6 inches from your eyes. A well manufactured device provides 10,000 lux at a comfortable distance (typically 12-24 inches). Who would ever sit with a light only six inches from their eyes? And even if they did, it would still not be strong enough to be effective without spending a lot of time in front of it. If you spend your money on this device, it’s wasted.

So my bottom line recommendation is DO NOT BUY THIS DEVICE. It will not work.

If you would like some advice on products that are worth the investment, here are two recommendations:

#1 – Carex Daylight classic

This device is probably the best one available on a consumer website like Amazon. The benefits are that it is up on a stand, which makes it more likely that the light will be positioned above your eyes, which is key for light  therapy to work. The downside is that the device needs to be about 12″ away from your eyes to be at the recommended 10,000 Lux that has been used in studies. If you carefully follow the directions, and sit with it relatively close to you, then most people get good benefits. This is the device suggested by the Center for Environmental Therapeutics, which is a non-profit dedicated to making light therapy more accessible.

#2 – Philips goLITE BLU 

Like the other light by Phillips, this is a quality product but at a more affordable price tag.  An additional bonus is that this product is better suited for packing up and taking with you. This light is based on newer research about the how blue light affects our eyes and circadian rhythms. It’s not quite as proven as the broad spectrum light above, but is a good alternative to the brighter, white lights if those bother your eyes or you want to try something more portable. Just make sure when you are using it that you are looking at something below the light (the light needs to hit your eyes from above).

Update: Don’t be fooled. Costco continues to sell the Verilux light above, but with a new name. The box for the new light says it’s a bit brighter, but still needs to be 6 inches from your eyes to work. That’s an impractical distance for most people. Don’t buy it. The new name for the questionable device is the “Verilux Happylight Liberty.” Given the poor track record of this company, I’d consider this new device similarly questionable. Avoid it. 


If you’d like some suggestions on other light therapy devices, or general info about SAD, click here.

Archives by Month