Science and technology

Valkee Oy developed a light ear device that sought to care of seasonal affective disorder in addition to fatigue.The Oulu-based firm Valkee is marketing a bright light headset to combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD). On its website, the company promises that its product will keep the winter blues at bay by "channelling Valkee bright light directly to the light-sensitive areas of the brain".

The Council for Mass Media in Finland (JSN) ruled against Suomen Kuvalehti in the case concerning the magazine's article stating that the bright light headset does not bring results. According to JSN, Valkee was entitled to present its side of the story in the article partly because expert opinions and interpretations of research on the bright light headset are contradictory and the search for the final truth on the matter is still underway.

But there is no contradiction. There is only the illusion of contradiction created by Valkee.

The marketing of products with alleged health benefits is often based on untruths and even though laws have been laid to protect the consumer, all too often things turn out as they did in Valkee's case.

Let's reiterate it once more: the human brain does not need light. If it did, it would contain light-sensitive receptors. In contrast to claims on Valkee's website, unlike some other animals, we apes do not have such receptors outside the retina in the eye. All light-dependent functions in our bodies are triggered through the retina.

Opsins, the proteins that Valkee swears by, do not react to light unless bonded with a molecule called retinal, which is only produced on the retina. And the molecule does not travel from there to the ear canal to bathe in the light. Valkee has shown that in the treatment of SAD, it does not matter one bit whether the dose of light channelled into the ear is 1 or 9 lumens. As one lumen amounts to no more than a placebo effect all that Valkee's study served to highlight was that their product did not work any better than a placebo. Their spin on it, however, was that the bright light headset cures SAD. This would be a demonstration of battiness if it was not used in a spiel to sell a product, designed to make a profit for the company.

With my hand on my heart of a biologist specialising in neurophysiology, I can say that even half-valid scientific evidence on the bright light headset working better than a placebo is glaring in its absence. Any unbiased expert in the field will tell you the same.

Where do we draw the line and say it is permissible to tell everyone that the emperor is in the buff without giving the floor to the tailor?

Increasingly often the only critical voices with expertise can be found on the Internet. But that is where also the most deluded cranks are to be found, so separating the wheat from the chaff takes some prior knowledge. Thanks to JNS, sources of information are becoming fewer and farther between.

The writer is a science reporter.

Susanne Björkholm – HS
Niina Woolley – HT
Image: Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva