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Light to the brain relieves winter blues

posted 20 Nov 2011, 08:39 by Mpelembe   [ updated 20 Nov 2011, 08:40 ]

An unusual method of delivering light therapy to combat seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is proving successful according to its Finnish developers. The system involves a headset, much like earphones, that shine bright lights directly into the brain through the ear canal.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (RECENT) (REUTERS) - Two Finnish entrepreneurs who invented a method of delivering light therapy straight into the brain say 90 percent of patients benefit from just a few minutes treatment with their system.

Antti Aunio, an engineer, and Juuso Nissila, a scientist who has studied the impact of lights on animals, developed the Valkee light system which uses small bulbs mounted on earpieces to shine bright lights straight into the brain to combat seasonal affective disorder - otherwise known as winter blues.

"When light is delivered into the brain directly, like via ear canal, the light releases neurotransmitters in our brains. These same neurotransmitters [like serotonin, melatonin and dopamine] are used to treat depression and neurological diseases. We have probably invented world's most effective non-pharmacological treatment," said Juuso Nissila.

Valkee and scientists from the University of Oulu presented results of two small clinical trials to a science conference in Budapest, saying the earplugs can effectively prevent and treat winter depression.

"He [founder of Valkee, Juuso Nissilä] hypothesised that the same opsin proteins which are photosensitive, which are known to exist in non-mammalian animals brains also exist in human brains. And we have followed that initial hypotesis and we have had the privilege to show to the scientific world for the first time in the world that they exist broadly in human brains," lead investigator for the two trials at the University of Oulu, professor Markku Timonen said.

Around 15-20 percent of central Europeans suffer from the winter disorder. In Valkee's hometown of Oulu in northern Finland, there are fewer than four hours of daylight during the depths of winter.

"Many Finnish people are suffering from the symptoms of winter blues during the winter time. And of course many friends of Juuso also had been suffering from that kind of things and he has a good friend, the other founder of the Valkee who did the technical part of this," Timonen said.

In clinical trials, 9 of 10 patients suffering from severe seasonal affective disorder experienced total relief from their symptoms in 4 weeks with a daily 8-12 minute dose, Timonen said.

"The trial which was conducted last year was a dose response study and we tried to find out what is the enough amount of light to alleviate the symptoms of winter blues and to our surprise even the lowest level, the lowest amount of light was enough in decreasing the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, winter blues."

Valkee investors include Anssi Vanjoki, long-time No 2 executive at Nokia, and health technology investor Esther Dyson.

Valkee do not expect to see rival products on the market any time soon. Regulatory approval to sell the product as a medical device took around three years.

"To be honest, at the beginning, people were laughing at us because they thought that it couldn't help anyone to put light into the dark ears but we have been saying that the ears are not the idea but the idea is the ear canals through which we can target the bright light towards the central areas of the brain. I think that nowadays there are not so many people anymore laughing at us because we could show that those opsin proteins broadly exist in many areas of human brain," Timonen said.

Valkee launched its bright-light headset in August 2010 and sold 6,000 of them in Finland over the following winter.

It is now aiming to grow sales of earplugs, which retail for 185 euros, by around 5-6 fold by the financial year ending in March 2012.