Researchers Study Melatonin and Light Treatment for Winter Depression

12/07/99    Portland, Ore.

For patients with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, the holiday season is often overshadowed by feelings of doom and gloom. Currently, most doctors prescribe bright light therapy as a treatment to counteract the effects of winter depression. However, for some, spending time sitting in front of a light box can be time-consuming and inconvenient. This winter, doctors at Oregon Health Sciences University are testing melatonin as another option for those with the winter blues.

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain, normally during the night. It is often recommended in a pill form to patients with sleeping problems. Scientists believe the hormone shifts a person's body clock based on when it is administered. In the past, scientists at OHSU have used the hormone to adjust the internal body clock of blind patients who have trouble with their sleeping schedule due to the absence of light.

Doctors at OHSU also believe the regulation of the body clock through melatonin can reduce the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. They hope melatonin, with or without light therapy, will cause a body clock shift, counteracting the effects of reduced sunlight during wintertime.

Alfred J. Lewy, M.D., Ph.D., vice chairman of the department of psychiatry and director of the Sleep and Mood Disorders Lab at OHSU, is the principal investigator in this study. He hopes this research will help bring relief to those with seasonal affective disorder. "This project could possibly lead to an effective and convenient way to treat winter depression," said Lewy. "Perhaps more importantly, this research may aid our understanding of chronobiological disorders and give us insight into how and why they occur. "

Patients who take part in the six-week study will receive both light therapy and a trial of either melatonin or a placebo. Their progress will be tracked through telephone interviews and scheduled appointments. All who take part in the study will receive a free light box, which normally costs between $300-$500.

The study is funded through a grant by the National Institute of Mental Health, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Note: People interested in taking part in this study can contact the Sleep and Mood Disorders Lab at OHSU by calling (503) 494-1402.