Mood-Boosting ‘Headphones’ Send Light Directly To The Brain

Mood-Boosting ‘Headphones’ Send Light Directly To The Brain

An unusual but reportedly effective way to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

John Pugh, BI
  • 19 december 2012

Every winter as the days get shorter and the sun starts to set a few hours after lunch, many people suffer from SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. Whether it’s just the winter blues, low energy or even severe depression, the colder months are just no fun for a lot of folks. But what if there was a quick method that could alleviate these debilitating mood swings?

Enter Valkee, a somewhat unexpected but effective device for treating seasonal depression. Because lack of exposure to sunlight is one of the reasons that people tend to get down during the winter, various forms of light therapy have become popular treatments.

Valkee, however, bypasses the normal ways your body encounters light (through the eyes and skin) to beam light directly onto the photosensitive areas of the brain. Worn like a pair of earbuds, Valkee emitters shine light on brain tissue through the ear canal, the thinnest part of the skull.

It may seem a bit fantastical, but researchers at the University of Oulu, Finland, have verified the efficacy of this method in several scientific tests. They found that Valkee harmlessly affects the body’s circadian rhythm, which means it can help with sleep problems as well, and that human brain tissue will activate when exposed to the light. With only 6-12 minutes of use per day for a month, 92% of test subjects experienced increased energy, better mood and fewer carb cravings.

Because the Valkee is portable and unobtrusive, many more people stand to benefit from this form of treatment without having to alter their routines. Typical treatments with current light therapies take upwards of 30 minutes to show an effect, whereas Valkee users can just pop the earbuds for a few minutes and get on with their days.

While the portable tech is intended for the consumer market, Valkees could be an easy and cost-effective solution for a variety of settings. Employers could give or lease them out for a month during the darkest times of the year and see an increase in winter productivity. The devices could be deployed in hospitals and psychiatric centers as a supplemental treatment all year round. And what about all of the arctic researchers, miners, night workers, travelers and people in remote northern locations who would benefit from this gadget?

It will be interesting to see the larger impacts if this or a similar device were positioned as a public health measure and distributed by government programs. Perhaps the winter blues would simply become another seasonal myth like red-nosed reindeers and abominable snow beasts.


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