Saturday, February 6, 2016

Curing Depression with Light: Let the Sun Shine in

In an elegant Canadian study, light outdid Prozac in a head-to-head comparison as treatment for nonseasonal major depression.

The study design is fascinating. Patients were randomly assigned to one of four groups: (1) light and a placebo pill; (2) Prozac and placebo light (an ion emitter modified to hum softly but emit no ions); (3) light and Prozac; and, (4) placebo light and a placebo pill.

The informed consent process involved deception. Subjects were told that the researchers were comparing light to ion treatment, and that half of the devices would be inactive. They were not told that all of the supposed ion emitters were inactive and all of the light units were active. The ethical rationale for allowing deception was that (a) the study goals could not otherwise be pursued, (b) the study had significant scientific and clinical merit, and (c) the deception posed no significant risks to the subjects.

The most effective monotherapy was light. Prozac alone was barely better than placebo. Light combined with Prozac was the most effective arm of the study, but not by much.

Light has been recognized as an effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but has not been rigorously evaluated for non-seasonal depression. If I were still in practice and saw a non-suicidal depressed patient who preferred not to use medication, I would recommend light treatment as part of our initial approach, combined with whatever form of psychotherapy fit the patient best.

We're a pill-happy society, and psychiatry, alas, has tilted away from non-pharmacological approaches to care. If Cazorp (Prozac spelled backwards) were a new pill that beat Prozac as decisively as light did in the Canadian study, the Cazorp company's stock would go through the roof. If further research confirms the Canadian findings, light should become a standard part of the initial response to depression. But although there's some financial opportunity for device manufacturers, inexpensive do-it-yourself light boxes are relatively easy to construct, so we're not likely to see a light boom analogous to the dominant pill boom.

Money talks, so pills thrive. Light cures, but produces little financial (as opposed to clinical) profit. Ergo, pill-popping wins hands down.

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