Yale Researchers Use Light Therapy To Treat Depressed Pregnant Women

A light therapy normally used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is now being tested on depressed pregnant women, possibly ending the need for antidepressants that often have side effects.

“Although most antidepressant drugs-with some exceptions-have not been shown to cause major harm to babies, side effects can be so uncomfortable for the mother that she feels awful from that alone,” said Dan A. Oren, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. “Light therapy also alleviates the unknown risks of taking an extra drug during pregnancy.”

While commonly used antidepressants might not cause birth defects, others have not been fully studied, so they may not be considered safe for use in the first trimester, according to C. Neill Epperson, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology in the Yale Behavioral Gynecology Clinic.

“Throughout pregnancy, a baby’s brain is continually developing, so taking medications that are known to affect the central nervous system during the second and third trimesters may be of some concern,” said Epperson. “All women on antidepressants should discuss their specific medication with their physicians in order to learn more about the drug’s risks and benefits.”

Preliminary results from the light therapy study, which is a cooperative effort among researchers at Yale, Columbia and Case Western Reserve Universities, suggest that it is effective in treating depression.

“The hope is that the women will feel better, have more energy to maintain their duties, whether they be at home or at work, and that they will not develop a depression that continues into the postpartum time,” said Oren. “By not being depressed when the baby is born, the mothers will be better able to care for their newborn children.”

Symptoms of depression include persistent sadness, loss of energy, loss of appetite and weight, loss of ability to enjoy life, sleep disturbance, guilt, thoughts of suicide, and impaired concentration or thinking capacity.

According to Epperson, some women can have mild depression, while others may be more severely affected. Anxiety is often a feature of depression and women may feel more anxious than depressed at times.

“Many women feel alone in their depression, like no one really understands,” said Epperson. “By seeking treatment through the light therapy study, these women will be supported by clinicians who have years of experience treating depression in mothers. Their symptoms will be closely monitored and we expect the majority of women to improve during their participation in the study.”

Oren, in collaboration with Epperson, will continue the research by enrolling 10 depressed and non-depressed pregnant women who are between the sixth and 31st week of pregnancy. Participants will sit in front of a lightweight portable light box that was custom built for the study for one hour daily.

The Ethel F. Donaghue Women’s Health Investigator Program at Yale currently supports the study. Those interested in participating may call the Behavioral Gynecology Clinic at (203) 764-9934.

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Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-980-2222