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Bye, Bye Blues?

Millions of people – up to 25 percent of those living in nontropical regions – get the blues during winter. Current treatment for seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, requires shining a light in the sufferer’s face for up to two hours a day. But Finnish start-up Valkee has a better idea: directing light into sufferers’ ears.

The “brain stimulation” therapy is based on research from Oulu University that discovered the exact location of light-sensitive proteins on the surface of the brain. The OPN3 proteins are part of a group also found in the retina. Researchers believe the brain proteins are key to curing SAD because they are clustered in the same areas that control mood, sleep, and depression. Shining light into ear canals is the most effective way of reaching them.

The Valkee device resembles a portable MP3 player, but each earbud contains an LED bulb that emits the same wavelength light as sunshine. In clincal tests with a small sample, 92 percent of severe SAD sufferers who used the device for 8 to 12 minutes a day reported all symptoms of depression had disappeared. A psychiatrist-administered test found that 77 percent experienced full remission of symptoms. (The company also has claimed that the light helps improve reaction time in Finnish hockey players, and it is working with Finnair to see if the mood-lifting effects can counteract jet lag.) On sale in Finland for about $130, the Valkee is proving music to SAD sufferers’ ears. While there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues, the wintertime variation may soon be history for many.

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