If you saw Darth Vader endorse a product, would you feel the desire to buy it?
That’s what the makers of the HumanCharger® were betting on during their initial marketing campaign in Finland, when they had an imposing image of Darth Vader using their product. The HumanCharger® was an iPod-like device that delivered light, not music, to your ears. Because what if you could cure the winter blues by feeding light into your ears, the company asked? They were really hoping the answer was yes.
This questionable device has recently found its way on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo. The campaign behind it is inviting backers to fund the latest iteration of their HumanCharger®, one that transforms it from a simple light therapy device to one that also plays music by tapping into your phone through Bluetooth technology. Imagine ear buds that shine like tiny flashlights and that play your favourite toe-tapping song. Could this be the end of winter blues?
Shining a light on seasonal affective disorder
“Winter blues” is the idea that some people report feeling depressed during the winter months and often sleeping and eating more. There’s a reverse condition where people report feeling depressed but sleeping and eating less and losing weight during the spring and summer months. Both of these conditions fall under the umbrella term “seasonal affective disorder” or SAD, and it includes not just depression, but also bipolar disorder, mania, and hypomania. Simply put, SAD is a mood disorder that is tied to a particular season, not just winter. It affects 0.5 to 3% of people and, contrary to popular thinking, it may not be more common in people living in northern countries (studies come to different conclusions on this point).
We do not know what causes SAD, though scientists suspect it has something to do with disruptions to our internal clock, with changes in the sensitivity of the light receptors inside our eyes, with genetics, and with changes in the regulation of important brain chemicals. Treatments include talk therapy with a professional, antidepressants and (that’s where the HumanCharger® comes in) bright light therapy.
You have probably seen these big light boxes. If you have a case of the winter blues, you spend some time each day in front of one of these powerful lamps and its light might improve your mood. Indeed, over half of patients who use bright light therapy see an improvement (and some even go into remission). But that’s a bright light in front of your eyes. Can that same light be pumped in through your ears?
Blinding with science
The idea for this came to a twentysomething Finnish man called Juuso Nissilä, who knew that some animals’ brain contains molecules at their surface that are sensitive to light. So he shone a flashlight on his temple one winter morning and reported feeling better. I am not making this up.
He started a company, Valkee, with a friend of his who was interested in combatting SAD, and they developed the light-delivering earbuds first called EarLight, later rebranded as the HumanCharger®. The idea is that the bright light manages to shine through the bone and onto your brain, affecting light receptors on its surface and, eventually, your mood. After receiving millions of dollars over the years for the development of this product, they are now seeking $44,000 on Indiegogo to add a functionality to their ear buds: music delivery.
The claims they make on the campaign’s webpage are not insignificant: “fixing winter blues”, “alleviating the symptoms of jet lag by 50%”, even “giving your body ‘superpowers’”. And they back up these assertions with the easiest trick in the pseudoscientist’s handbook: blinding with science. Listing publications with arcane titles such as “stimulating brain tissue with bright light alters functional connectivity in brain at the resting state” makes it all look scientific to a potential customer. But do these scientific studies actually provide rigorous evidence that the device works?
The short answer is no. Their initial pilot study had no control group and was published in a journal that specializes in medical hypotheses. Another study recruited players on the same hockey team. Some got a working device; those in the control group got a non-functioning device. Given the intensity of the light, I have to assume the working devices produced heat inside the ear, which makes me question the blinding. Imagine a teammate mentioning he can feel the heat in his ears when the device is on but you can’t. Perhaps their most infamous study, exposed on a Finnish investigative journalism programme, used a low-light group as a negative control. When the results were in and even the control group got better, the authors went back to the site where they had registered their trial and changed the control group to a therapy group. It goes without saying that changing the design of your experiment when the results are in to make it fit your hypothesis (especially when there’s money on the table) is not how science should be done.
SAD guys Finnish last
It would appear that Valkee, the company behind the HumanCharger®, has been operating at a loss since its inception. Sales have fallen, they are reported to have an income deficit of 2.9 million euros, and they are now resorting to crowdfunding to give their gizmo new life. I hope this doesn’t give its makers a bad case of the blues, because I’m not sure their doodad will be very helpful.
- Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder that is tied to a particular season. It can be treated using antidepressants, talk therapy, and sitting in front of a special bright light often called a SAD lamp.
- A company in Finland is marketing a device called HumanCharger® that looks like an iPod and that shines a light inside your ears.
- There is no good evidence that this device can be helpful for people with seasonal affective disorder.
On the Indiegogo page are listed 15 scientific references that are meant to show that the HumanCharger® technology has been clinically tested. I want to go through all of them to show how easy it is to dump a collection of scientific papers on a website as proof that a device works… even when the evidence they present is ultimately unconvincing.
The first two references are Ph.D. dissertations, the first featuring work done in mice and hamsters, the second containing actual scientific papers listed further down. That leaves 13 studies.
Of these 13 studies, 6 were funded by the company Valkee, with three more being written up by many employees and shareholders of Valkee. This does not mean the science is incorrect, but this conflict of interest should certainly be kept at the back of our mind.
Seven of the 13 studies present basic research findings, meaning experiments done in mice or on slices of tissue in the laboratory. If the makers of the HumanCharger® are going around making claims about their product, we need clinical testing in live human beings to show that the device works. That leaves us with 6 studies, only one of which was not funded by Valkee. Here’s a rundown of these studies:
1. Timonen, 2012: A study with no control group in which participants also saw a psychiatrist and which was published in a journal called Medical Hypotheses (which also published an article entitled “Ejaculation as a potential treatment for nasal congestion in adult males”).
2. Jurvelin, 2014 (1): This is the study in which the control group was retroactively relabelled as a “low dosage” group when its volunteers also improved, a big no-no in science.
3. Jurvelin, 2014 (2): A study done in eight people (eight!) who received light treatment or a sham in the middle of the night. Though the device was hypothesized to work by changing levels of melatonin or cortisol, the authors found no difference in these levels.
4. Tulppo, 2014: The hockey study in which blinding (i.e. not knowing if you got the active device or the sham device) was questionable. They did not measure mood changes, but rather reaction times. Many of the variables they measured which had to do with reaction time did not vary between the two groups. The only one that did was “motor time with a visual warning signal”. If you check enough variables, one of them is bound to turn up positive.
5. Jurvelin, 2015: A study on the impact of the HumanCharger® on jet lag for 55 men who travelled from Finland to North America. While the methodology was better than in previous studies (they even used earmuffs to cover the device for blinding purposes), the results are all over the map. Some of it is positive, some of it is negative, and it all looks like a giant game of cherry picking.
6. Sun, 2016: The only clinical study not funded by Valkee. They had 18 young volunteers put on the device, and they measured brain activity while performing tasks that required visual attention. A far cry from testing for seasonal affective disorder or jet lag. They also took a dead human skull and showed that light shining inside its ears could penetrate at the base of the skull.
Interestingly enough, the Indiegogo webpage does not list another paper, this one by an independent team at the University of Basel, which compared an active HumanCharger® to a blacked-out (so inert) HumanCharger® to an actual evidence-based SAD lamp. The results would not be to Valkee’s liking, I suspect. Only the SAD lamp was able to attenuate the rise in melatonin levels (which makes you sleepy) and to actually make the volunteers less sleepy temporarily. While the study only tested 20 volunteers, it remains the only independent test of Valkee’s device that I could find. Given Valkee’s claim that its gizmo will “increase energy levels and mental alertness”, we have every right to ask for evidence.
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