Research Study Finds Light Therapy Effective Against (Not Necessarily Seasonal) Depression

A newly published research study in JAMA Psychiatry examines the “Efficacy of Bright Light Treatment, Fluoxetine, and the Combination in Patients With Nonseasonal Major Depressive Disorder”.


Light therapy is commonly used to counter seasonal depression (aka Seasonal Affective Disorder, aka winter blues). However, this research study specifically looked at light therapy’s usefulness for people with “nonseasonal major depressive disorder (MDD)”, either alone or in combination with an anti-depressant drug (fluoxetine, aka Prozac).

Researchers divided their subjects into four groups. One group received both treatments daily: 30 minutes of light box therapy and 20 mg of fluoxetine. A second group received the light box therapy and a placebo pill. A third group received real fluoxetine but bogus machine therapy (30 minutes sitting with an “inactive negative ion generator”). A fourth group received both fakes, the placebo and the bogus machine.

The results were promising for light therapy, but confusing for the anti-depressant drug.

Light box + fluoxetine: 76% response, 59% remission
Light box + placebo pill: 50% response, 44% remission
Fake machine + fluoxetine: 29% response, 19% remission
Fake machine + placebo pill: 33% response, 30% remission

(Remission defined as score of 10 or below on Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale at end of 8-week study. Response defined as score reduction of at least 50% over 8-week period.)

So the light therapy worked significantly better than the “inactive negative ion generator”, with or without the drug therapy. More evidence that a light box is a worthwhile investment for depression sufferers.

What about the fluoxetine? Did it have any positive impact? The combination of light therapy and drug therapy scored higher than light therapy alone. That sounds positive. However, drug therapy alone scored lower than placebo pill/fake machine. That sounds bad. And so the great debate continues.

A university press release about the study quotes the research study lead:

“These results are very exciting because light therapy is inexpensive, easy to access and use, and comes with few side effects,” said Dr. Raymond Lam, a UBC professor and psychiatrist at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, a partnership between UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health. “Patients can easily use light therapy along with other treatments such as antidepressants and psychotherapy.”

Let’s take a moment to express gratitude to all the scientists working to improve our collective knowledge on this subject. Thanks!

2 comments… add one
  • Nick Stokes December 28, 2015, 12:19 pm

    This is not a new thing for me. However, until now, I didn’t know the precise results. I have to say that this kind of treatment has great potential in future. Thank you for article David.

  • Michelle Louise December 31, 2015, 12:47 am

    My office at work doesn’t have a window. I’ve been thinking about buying a light box for quite some time now. Maybe I’ll really have to look into that. P.S. I like knowing the numbers. Thanks for sharing the results of this study!

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