Can shining a light into the ears combat ‘winter blues’?

The shorter days and general lack of sunlight in the winter can leave some of us prone to low mood and lack of vitality or even full-blown depression in the form of ‘seasonal affective disorder’ (SAD). A reasonable and often-effective strategy for overcoming these issues is light therapy, delivered by devices which simulate sunlight.

However, in recent years there has been some interest in the idea that light delivered via the eye is not the only way to combat problems associated with lack of light. It is possible that the brain can responds to light that is bright enough to make its way through the skull. One practical approach here might be to shine light into the ears, because the skull is relatively thin in this region.

Recently, a pilot study was published in which 13 individuals with seasonal affective disorder were treated with light therapy into their ear canals for 8 or 12 minutes a day, five days a week for 4 weeks.

The results were dramatic. Scores of depression according to what is know as the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale were about 23 at the start of the study. Scores fell by at least half in 12 of the 13 subjects. 10 out of the 13 subjects had complete remission of their depression. Similar improvements were seen in anxiety scores too.

One major deficiency of this study is that it failed to include a placebo group (e.g. a group using earplugs and a device that delivered no light or a non-therapeutic light). The authors of this study recognise that a placebo group would be easy to incorporate, and they rightly call for further study.

While this study is flawed, I still think it is interesting. As the authors of the study point out, the results achieved are unlikely to be due solely to the placebo response. Let’s hope that a placebo-controlled study is done soon.

However, in the meantime, some might be interested to know that a Finnish company called Valkee is manufacturing and selling a device which provides light therapy via ear plugs (see picture below). The company website also contains other pieces of research some may find interesting. I’m not averse to a bit of self-experimentation, and would almost certainly have invested in this device if I didn’t already have a traditionally light therapy box.
The price of this device might be prohibitive for some, but other may reason that if it provides significant relief from low mood and seasonal affective disorder, it would have been money well spent.


1. Timonen M, et al. Can transcranial brain-targeted bright light treatment via ear canals be effective in relieving symptoms in seasonal affective disorder? – A pilot study. Med Hypotheses 2012 Jan 30. [Epub ahead of print]

5 Responses to Can shining a light into the ears combat ‘winter blues’?

  1. Marie 10 February 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    Funnily enough, I was reading the other day about Intranasal Light Therapy, which involves shining a light up the nostril in order to illuminate the rich mass of blood vessels there, so supposedly benefiting the circulatory system with an associated beneficial knock-on effect to various ailments. Interesting to hear about this aural study, too.

  2. Chris 17 February 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    As a little kid or even as a ‘big kid’ have you ever pressed a bright torch against the hand and observed some light passing through? Clearly light can pass through our tissues but much gets absorbed – and some wavelengths are evidently better absorbed than others. So if wavelengths of light enter tissues then to be absorbed what’s happening to the energy conveyed by the photons? Is the question reason enough to be open-minded?

    Your report on this study makes me think of ‘earthing’ which sounds like total quackery first glance but then seems more plausible after contemplation of evolution and how many species have permanent or frequent (electrically) conductive contact with ‘ground’ – including our own. But in modern times direct skin contact with a properly grounded -erm- ‘ground’ (via, say, the soles of the feet and grassy lawn or sandy beach) would be quite a rare event for many people. I keep meaning to read the book by Ober, Sinatra & Zucker, which gets highly positive reviews on amazon.

  3. Searcher 18 February 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    Having read the book I bought an earthing sheet. As a result my sleep quality has greatly improved. Earthing had a range of other beneficial properties eg helping with pain and inflammation which the book details.

  4. Mike Mc 21 February 2012 at 11:46 pm #

    It certainly sounds like an interesting idea, but £165 for a set of LEDs stuck into some earphone buds! Really?! This is a rip-off. The unit itself is nothing more than a battery and a microcontroller for the timer. The LEDs will be standard LEDs available off the shelf. Anyone with some basic maker knowledge could make a set of these for less than £10. Don’t waste your money and make one or get your local hackerspace to make one for you.

  5. Chris 24 February 2012 at 1:25 am #

    Searcher, I must order that book!

    Just before dawn the other day I found myself feeling very drowsy while driving. I (pulled over then) shone an LED torch into each ear in turn, maybe 30 seconds each. I might say any effect may have been subtle – cos I wouldn’t rush to conclusions – but ..

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