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Could bright lights help with bipolar disorder? B.C. research explores possible treatment
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VANCOUVER -- Could bright, artificial light help people with bipolar disorder the way it helps those dealing with seasonal depression?
Research from a Vancouver university suggests light therapy could help those dealing with depressive symptoms of the condition.
In a question-and-answer-style news release, the University of British Columbia recapped research published by a professor in its department of psychiatry.
In The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Raymond Lam wrote that patients involved in trials with bright light saw "significant" improvements when compared to a placebo.
Lam, who is also the director of the Mood Disorders Centre at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health and a Vancouver Coastal Health research scientist, said the results were from seven published trials.
Overall, it appeared there was improvement, and that few people experienced side effects from the light.
"Importantly, light therapy did not cause a switch from depression to mania, as can happen with antidepressants in people with bipolar disorder."
Bipolar disorder is a medical condition that causes a person to cycle from periods of depression to an elevated mood often referred to as mania.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says those with the condition often the two, as well as a "well state" when they feel "normal" and are functioning well.
All people experience a variety of emotions, but those with bipolar disorder often see more extreme mood swings.
Symptoms listed by CAMH include exaggerated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts and engaging in risky behaviour, as well as depressed mood, loss of interest in activities, weight gain or loss and apathy or agitation.
Often, those diagnosed with the disorder are treated with medication and/or psychotherapy.
But Lam's study suggests light therapy might be another treatment to explore.
"We don't know exactly how light therapy works for seasonal and nonseasonal depression, and whether it is the same mechanism for bipolar depression," he said in the UBC release.
"What we do know is that light acts through the eyes to regulate the biological clock located in a tiny region of the brain, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus. We also know that there are disturbances in the biological clock that affect circadian (daily) rhythms in people with bipolar disorder, including hormonal rhythms, sleep, cognition, and other behaviours. However, we don’t know if regulating circadian rhythms is the reason why light therapy works as an antidepressant."
Other studies, he says, have shown light can have an impact on neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine, so it's possible light works similarly to antidepressants.
Lam says there were limitations with the study, so more research is needed into optimal conditions, wavelengths, brightness, length of exposure and more.
As it is difficult to treat the disorder due to highs and lows and can require both anti-depressants and mood stabilizers, a non-medical treatment could be helpful, if proven effective.