Can LED earbuds brighten up your winter?

Finnish company Valkee has promoted a device that looks like an mp3 player but where the earbuds have bright LED lights that are there to allegedly stimulate the brain via the ear canal. The company suggests that the light simulates the mood-elevating effects of the sun, by channeling safe bright light directly to photosensitive regions of the brain through the ear canal.

The company suggests that the device can be used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or what is often referred to as the winter blues, the feeling of lethargy and depressiveness experienced by people during the winter months when there is less sunlight exposure. A small trial from Oulu University suggests that the claims made by the company before the research was done might warrant further investigation.

However, there is scant evidence that the brain responds to light in the way the company suggests, the trial involved just 13 people, there was no control. Moreover, the light from the LEDs is very weak, can it really penetrate to the surface of the brain?

The company says, “Valkee increases energy, and can act as a preventative or treatment of mood swings.” I’m never sure what alternative medicine practitioners actually mean by “energy”, they’re either talking about some spurious mystical nonsense like Qi (pronounced “chee”) or they just mean feelings of well-being. Either way, if it cannot be measured in Joules it’s not energy.

For some reason, The Guardian Technology Podcast picked up on the existence of Valkee a short time ago (presumably because their correspondent Charles Arthur just happened to be visiting Finland and needed a local company to talk about). He did ask about placebos and controls and I am sure I heard the company representative say that they couldn’t do placebo controlled tests without lying to the subjects. My curiosity was piqued at the time but having received a test gadget I really am even less convinced, especially as it seems SAD is not really a winter-time “depression” at all, but can occur any time of the year and moreover depression, and general misery seem not to be seasonal despite the claims of those hoping to medicalize melancholy.

Valkee’s chief executive Timo Ahopelto told me that depression is a disease that takes a long time to develop and a long time to cure. “Many antidepressants take 3-6 months to have an effect,” he says. “Although with some SAD sufferers we see an immediate effect after 1-3 days of usage, most typically the symptoms resolve after 1-2 weeks.” He adds that, “As the light has an immediate effect, it can cure mood states like jetlag and act as a preventative to migraine. For disorders that by their nature have longer mechanisms, it takes longer.”

I am still not convinced that SAD is really anything more than what the Victorians referred to as suffering from malaise or melancholy. Indeed, some light therapy companies claim benefits can be achieved after just one session whereas the little bits of research that have been done suggest it takes weeks of daily use of the light source. To my mind, the best answer if you’ve got the winter blues and are able is to grab your hat and coat and get yourself outside into the fresh air and take a nice long walk. Get the available sunlight on your face.

Research Blogging IconTimonen M, Nissilä J, Liettu A, Jokelainen J, Jurvelin H, Aunio A, Räsänen P, & Takala T (2012). Can transcranial brain-targeted bright light treatment via ear canals be effective in relieving symptoms in seasonal affective disorder? – A pilot study. Medical hypotheses PMID: 22296809

The Valkee device costs an astounding GBP185 but seems to be nothing more than two LEDs that produce the equivalent of a half-watt incandescent lightbulb each, a couple of bits of stiff and noisy (when the buds are in your ears) wire, and a little box with a USB slot, an on-off button and presumably a timer circuit to illuminate the LEDs. I reckon I could make one for about 20 quid with bits from Tandy/Radio Shack. The medical certification mentioned on the company’s website is all well and good but says nothing of therapeutic efficacy.

More in my February Pivot Points column in The Euroscientist.

Uncharted, unfashionable, but unavoidably wonderful

The exploration of our solar system is one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements. The last half century has seen huge steps forward in our understanding of the planets, the sun, and the countless other objects in the solar system. Some would say that planetary science is a mature discipline — involving geoscientists, astronomers, physicists, chemists and others, we have in fact barely set foot into our exploration of our heavenly neighbours. Drawing on the latest observations, Peter Bond gives us an authoritative and timely account of these “uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy.” – Exploring the Solar System

Although more than three centuries old, the five-night garden dialogues between Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) and Aphra Behn (1640-1689) remain a painless way to learn about the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars, even though new planets were later discovered and modern science has filled out many details Fontenelle could not have known. This is no lecture, but a conversation with the cut and thrust of intelligent argument as the Marchioness challenges each of the astronomer’s assertions and requires him to explain the evidence. – A Discovery of New Worlds.

Bruce Schneir’s Liars & OUtliers takes a close look at trust. When we think about trust, we usually consider our personal relationships or perhaps our bank safety deposit box in Switzerland. But, trust is much wider than than. In fact, society only works with trust. It underpins communities, commerce, democracy – everything. Internationally renowned security technologist Bruce Schneier looks at the human side of tech and weaves together ideas from across the social and biological sciences to explain how society induces trust. He shows how trust works and fails and explains how in today’s wonderfully connected world, understanding the mechanisms of trust is as important as understanding electricity was a century ago. – Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive.

Modern humans spend upwards of 11 hours out of every 24 in a state of constant consumption. Not eating, but gorging on information ceaselessly spewed from screens, monitors, speakers and earbuds. Just as many people have grown morbidly obese on sugar and fat and a lack of bodily movement, so, too, have we become (apparently) gluttons for texts, instant messages, emails, newsfeeds, app downloads, viral videos, Facebook status updates, and tweets. Author Clay Johnson seems to imply that this is something new. The technology aside, I am not so sure, we have always been social animals, we thrive on gossip, from the time we were chattering in the trees to the branches of a social network. I certainly agree that we should take control of our consumption but only so that we can gain the most benefit from it. – The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption

Delivering healthcare electronically

The evaluation of e-health services seems not to be high on the research agenda and yet finding ways to evaluate such initiatives and provide feedback to developers could support existing e-health projects and lead to better quality and efficiency in future initiatives. The outcome would hopefully be to the benefit of patients and healthcare workers alike.

Writing in IJBIS, a team from at Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK, explain that e-health is a rather broad term that encompasses various disparate activities in what is still an evolving field. The World Health Organization (WHO) sees e-health as “the leveraging of information and communication technology” for healthcare purposes whether connecting providers and patients and governments, educating and informing healthcare professionals, managers and patients or stimulating innovation in care delivery and health systems management.

That is indeed a broad and perhaps less than useful definition given that the variety of e-health applications is vast and ranges from simple self-help guides online for treating common ailments at home to virtual clinics and surgeries offering not only diagnostic consultations between patients and practitioners at distant sites and the possibility of remote treatment.

However it is defined, Brunel’s Hamid Alalwany and Sarmad Alshawi suggest that, “E-health has the potential to change the healthcare industry worldwide in terms of infrastructure, costs and quality of service.” In their analysis of e-health they highlight NHS Direct, a service of the UK’s National Health Service that is available to patients via telephone, a satellite TV channel and on the web. The telephone service handles millions of calls each year while the TV channel is available to about 18 million homes.

The NHS Direct website gets tens of millions of unique visitors each year and offers patients and carers a range of information:

  • Self-help guide about treating common health problems at home.
  • Heath encyclopaedia which allow users to search for a treatment or condition.
  • Comparison of available treatments for specific conditions.
  • Answers to common health questions and problems.
  • Hot topics on the latest health issues, often debunking tabloid scare stories.
  • Database of local health services, including physicians, hospitals, dentists, pharmacies.
  • Online health enquiry service.

NHS Direct is one of the biggest e-health services in the world. As such, Alalwany and Alshawi suggest that evaluating it qualitatively and quantitatively could provide researchers with a useful framework with which to study other similar services currently in place and to determine the merits and limitations of experimental and future e-health services.

The team’s analysis of NHS Direct found several limitations the identification of which could either be used to improve that service or guide the development of its successor or other national e-health services, for instance. Either way, their approach could be applied to evaluating holistically any e-health service.

Research Blogging IconHamid Alalwany, & Sarmad Alshawi (2012). The rationale of e-health evaluation: the case of NHS Direct Int. J. Business Information Systems, 9 (4), 484-497

Free 150-minute life extension

Step right up! It’s the miracle cure we’ve all been waiting for. But, this is no snake oil, no pink medicine, no alternative or mystical panacea.

It can reduce your risk of major illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer by up to 50% and lower your risk of early death by almost a third!

It’s free, easy to take, has an immediate effect and you don’t need a doctor to prescribe it. Its name? Obvious really. Exercise. The good news is that a 150-minute weekly dose is as little as you need to feel the benefits.

Losing weight is easier than you think

The tabloids were recently full of nonsense about metabolic rate, diets, weight loss, obesity…hold on…when are they not full of nonsense? The latest story claimed that it’s twice as hard to lose weight than current guidelines suggest. Is it? Here’s what the NHS has to say on the matter.

It also offers advice on the best way to lose weight and suggests that shedding just 5% of your body mass, if you’re overweight can reduce high blood pressure and lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The NHS also links out to the NIH online weight simulator tool, which allows you to input your age, gender and weight and then calculates how many calories you need to cut from your diet in order to achieve a target weight loss. It is actually a research tool and includes no advice on diet or exercise, so it’s useful but not a substitute for personal medical advice on diet and weight loss.

How glaucoma medication works

I recently wrote about the diagnosis of glaucoma and readers were then asking about how their eye drops for the condition work.

The raised pressure within the eye that defines glaucoma and can cause optic nerve damage can be lowered through surgery problematic cases that do not respond to drugs but eyedrops containing one of a range of medications is the first line treatment. Despite the risks to one’s sight, apparently patient compliance with medication is low in many cases.

  • Prostaglandin analogues, such as latanoprost (Xalatan), bimatoprost (Lumigan) and travoprost (Travatan), increase the rate of fluid outflow from the aqueous humor to lower pressure. Bimatoprost also increases trabecular outflow.
  • Topical beta-adrenergic receptor antagonists, such as timolol, levobunolol (Betagan), and betaxolol, decrease aqueous humor production to lower pressure.
  • Alpha2-adrenergic agonists, such as brimonidine (Alphagan) and apraclonidine, work by a dual mechanism, decreasing aqueous humor production and increasing outflow.
  • Less-selective alpha agonists, such as epinephrine, decrease aqueous humor production through vasoconstriction of blood vessels.

Other compounds used in glaucoma include: epinephrines, miotic agents, such as pilocarpine, the acetylcholinesterase inhibitor echothiophate is used in chronic glaucoma, dorzolamide (Trusopt), brinzolamide (Azopt), and acetazolamide (Diamox) and physostigmine.

A real life Periodic Table

One of the co-founders of Wolfram Research, Theo Gray, owns a home made, wooden periodic table table with compartments underneath every element label, with samples, if you’re a chem geek you’ll have probably seen it before. Gray built and populated the wooden PT in his free time. Kirk Zamieroski of the American Chemical Society tells me Gray also has “a ridiculously bizarre element collection.” You get to see some of it in this expo of Gray’s PT and collection put together by Zamieroski.

Feeling fine for Fenland findings

ANOTHER UPDATE: I followed up this post with two additional posts outlining the issue that they flagged and a few other things. One was cholesterol, as I suspected, but after three weeks of cutting out savoury and fatty snacks it was back to normal. The other was a dodgy liver function test. I hoped that would just be the fact that I’d been taking omeprazole for a few weeks rather than liver disease. Having stopped drinking any alcohol for three weeks and ceasing the omeprazole the enyzmes were pretty much back to normal. My GP said that it could well be the omeprazole, but also advised on reducing alcohol intake regardless, even though it wasn’t particularly high. Like I say, take part in a trial like this, it helps others but also might give you the wake-up call you need to adjust your lifestyle for the better.

QUICK UPDATE: I had a call back from my GP who has now received the various test results from the study. I have not had my copy. So, I have to pay the surgery a visit…in two days time, so plenty of time to worry about what they found. They told me there would be no call back unless something was amiss. My suspicion is that my cholesterol (which was marginally high in a previous test) was a little bit higher still. Of course, I could be wrong and they may have found something far more sinister. That’s the trouble with being a hypochondriac, you see…always the worried well…or unwell.

Well, I’ve fasted overnight, urinated into a plastic vial, donated half a dozen shots of blood, been exposed to X-rays, had height (just under 6 foot), weight and waist & hips measured (not telling), body fat determined (somewhere between the “average” man at 18—24%), blood pressure recorded (138/72), sipped on a glucose solution and been smeared with water-based lubricant gel, and wired up to heart monitors and O2/CO2 breathing apparatus while marching and running on a treadmill. As I type, a heart monitor remains stuck to a lightly shaved patch on my chest recording each beat for the next week or so while a GPS tracker is hanging from a belt around my waist noting where I am when my pulse races!

Yes, I’m back from participating in the Fenland Study. It’s the full body M.O.T. test courtesy of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit.

The urine and bloods will be tested for various disorders, kidney function, liver disease and most importantly for this study, perhaps, diabetes (hence the glucose drink).

DEXA’s midday stunner

The X-rays amount to an additional half hour of background radiation exposure (unlike a conventional chest X-ray, for instance, which is about five-days worth). That scan – dual-emission X-ray absorptiometry (now known as DXA, previously DEXA) is used to determine bone mineral density (BMD) and body fat distribution. The process involves lying on a bed, keeping very still and having two X-ray beams of different frequency, or energy level, aimed at your body. The scan is akin to scanning a document on a flat-bed scanner. Anyway, the picture you see here, is how I look underneath my tee-shirt and scrubs and, in fact, underneath my skin! DXA is the most widely used and most thoroughly studied BMD measurement technology. If you’re at risk of osteoporosis they’re likely to use this scan to assess you.

Anyway, the Fenland Study has been underway since 2005 and randomly selects from patient registers for the regions surrounding Cambridge, Ely and Wisbech. The team recently passed the 5000th person born between 1950 and 1975 and is hoping to assess 5000 more, which will give the research team an excellent over-view of fitness, body metrics and metabolic issues across the population. Interestingly, they recruit people without diabetes and according to a wallchart published at the time they’d assessed 2387 people, they’d spotted 31 undiagnosed cases of type 2 diabetes.

I’ll receive a report some time after I send back the heart monitor and GPS tracker, this will include details of what they found and presumably any suggestions regarding lifestyle, diet and exercises that might be warranted. My physician will also receive a copy of the blood test results and will hopefully not have to give me a follow-up call.

The research at the MRC Epidemiology Unit, which is running the Fenland Study focuses on several key areas:

  • The causes of type 2 diabetes and obesity
  • The effect of diet and nutrition on type 2 diabetes and obesity
  • The effect of physical activity on type 2 diabetes and obesity
  • Early growth and development in children and how this affects the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes
  • Strategies for preventing type 2 diabetes, obesity and their related complications

If you get to take part you will not only be assisting medical science and a worthwhile cause you will be saving yourself a few pounds as the whole battery of tests would normally cost about 600GBP to undertake at a UK hospital. All members of the research team are highly skilled, very professional, courteous and offer you a cuppa and a sarnie when they’re finished with your body. Who could ask for anything more?

You cannot ask your GP or anyone else for that matter to add you to the study list, it’s done randomly, but if they offer you the chance to take part, grab it.

Faster than light? Jim’s shorts are safe

When physicists announced they’d detected sub-atomic particles, neutrinos, that were travelling at speeds beyond the speed of light in a vacuum, there was a media feeding frenzy. Most scientists assumed it was a glitch and Jim Al-Khalili said he’d eat his shorts on live TV if faster than light neutrinos were found to exist.

Indeed, it was only a clutch of non-Einsteinian pseudoscientists with their cracked conjectures who even vaguely thought such particles might achieve such great speeds. After all, there is no way to explain how a particle with mass might be accelerated to a speed that exceeds that of “mass-free” electromagnetic radiation, this is regardless of any discrepancies in Relativity or the fact that it is yet to be unified or corroborated with the quantum world. More to the point, the very GPS satellites on which many scientific studies rely have to be corrected for Relativistic effects, which kind of suggests that it’s a pretty accurate interpretation of physical reality!

Anyway, just released a CERN Communiqué de Presse which says:

“The OPERA collaboration has…identified two possible effects that could have an influence on its neutrino timing measurement. These both require further tests with a short pulsed beam. If confirmed, one would increase the size of the measured effect, the other would diminish it.”

I suspect that the OPERA team will not be offering to pass the condiments to Jim any time in the near future.

“The first possible effect concerns an oscillator used to provide the time stamps for GPS synchronizations. It could have led to an overestimate of the neutrino’s time of flight. The second concerns the optical fibre connector that brings the external GPS signal to the OPERA master clock, which may not have been functioning correctly when the measurements were taken. If this is the case, it could have led to an underestimate of the time of flight of the neutrinos.”

The new measurements with short pulsed beams are scheduled for May, CERN says.

Detecting glaucoma

I had my eyes tested a couple of weeks ago, ended up with new reading glasses (did I already say? Means I’m going to have to change my avatar again). Anyway, I have a close relative with glaucoma so the optician/ophthalmologist usually does a pressure test on my eyes. She uses a non-contact tonometer. This device fires a puff of air straight at the front of your eye and measures the time between the start of the air moving and the flattening of the cornea as the air hits using lights and optics and stuff. The time interval is calibrated with intraoccular pressure.

It’s uncomfortable but avoids the need for anaesthetic drops in the eyes and means your eyes are not being impinged by a plastic or metal disc as with the old sprung devices.

My ophthalmologist knew the principles of intraocular pressure and why she was measuring it, but wasn’t so sure how the device actually “read” the pressure. Like I say the device simply times the gap between puffing the air and the distortion of the cornea as the air hits, which is calibrated with eye pressure. It’s a process that occurs on a timescale of thousandths of a second, milliseconds. Critically, it takes less time for the puff of air to flatten a soft eye than it does a hard eye. A harder eye is one with a higher intraocular pressure and thus a greater risk of glaucoma.

My pressures were fine, although a slight discrepancy between eyes meant the ophthalmologist wanted to carry out a follow-up test. To be honest, from this site, I’d have been inclined to ignore the outlier she saw with my left eye and to assume the difference was down to her testing the right eye first. As I said, it’s an uncomfortable feeling having air puffed repeatedly in your eye and it does make you tense and squint.

Anyway, the follow-up test is a vision field test, which involves staring at a marker on a screen in a darkened room and indicating when and how many dim spots of light appear as generated by a computer. Thankfully, my field test was fine. Oddly though, my ophthalmologist took several attempts to get defeat my vision, raising the point that maybe I could see in the infrared. It’s not that, I just eat a lot of carrots.

More on non-contact tonometry here.

Glaucoma is an eye disease in which the optic nerve becomes damaged because of increased fluid pressure in the eye. The term ‘ocular hypertension’ is used for people with consistently raised intraocular pressure without any associated optic nerve damage. Conversely, the term ‘normal tension’ or ‘low tension’ glaucoma is used for those with optic nerve damage and associated visual field loss but normal or low pressure.