Light therapy effective for depression unrelated to seasons, UBC study finds

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      The phrase "let there be light" may soon be what doctors tell patients experiencing depression, even if the mood disorder is not seasonally related.

      While sun-deprived Vancouverites have long been aware that light therapy is one way of treating seasonal-affective disorder, a new UBC study has found that lightboxes can be effective in treating other forms of non-seasonal depression.

      The researchers randomly assigned 122 patients experiencing major depressive disorder from Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, and Saint John, to one of four groups: light therapy (30 minutes of exposure to a fluorescent light box after waking up) plus a placebo pill, a placebo device plus an antidepressant (Prozac), light therapy plus the antidepressant, or a placebo device and a placebo pill.

      By the end of an 8-week period, 59 percent of those who received the combination of light therapy plus the antidepressant experienced remission from depression. Among those who only received light therapy, 44 percent achieved remission. Interestingly, 30 percent of those who received the combination placebos also saw remission. In contrast, only 19 percent of those who received the antidepressant with the placebo pill had their depression go into remission.

      In looking at patients who experienced a significant reduction of symptoms, a similar pattern emerged. The highest level (76 percent) remained in the group who received the double treatment. Half of the light-therapy-only group reported a reduction in symptoms. A third of the double-placebo group reported a reduction while 29 percent of the antidepressant-only group experienced a reduction.

      “These results are very exciting because light therapy is inexpensive, easy to access and use, and comes with few side effects,” UBC professor and psychiatrist at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health Dr. Raymond Lam stated in a news release. The research was published on November 18 in JAMA Psychiatry.  

      Dr. Lam, one of the authors of the study and the medical director of the UBC Hospital Mood Disorders Centre for Excellence, recently spoke about how depression affects men and what initiatives UBC is taking to address the issues at an event on November 18.

      According to the researchers, while medication can be prescribed for depression, antidepressants are only effective in about 60 percent of all cases of depression.

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