Observations about the universe, life, Lausanne and me

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Light-box follow-up

Here is a quick long follow-up on my light-box construction post, which garnered unprecedented attention - thank you for all the comments!

When I set out to build the light-box, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision on december the 23rd. And let me tell you, buying something at IKEA on that day gives you a disorder all on it's own. I did not have much time for research, so I read a couple of webpages and set off. Now that I have a bit more time, I searched and found more information; here is a quick summary:

  • Light therapy has been shown effective in numerous clinical trials since the 1980s (Lewy et al. 1982, Rosenthal et al. 1984 being the first)
  • According to most studies, 5000 lux-hours/day give the best clinical response, 10000 lux for 30 minutes is most commonly used in practice. Note that I am talking about lux here, i.e. luminous flux, or lumen per square meter. The luminosity of light bulbs is given in lumen, which is the total light output in all directions. When building your lightbox you want to focus that in the direction of your patient. I used aluminium foil as a reflector, as a few commenters have rightly pointed out, a flat white coat of paint would have been more efficient (and would probably look better). Something to bear in mind for the lightbox Mark II.
  • Light colour: Numerous studies have been done concerning which colour of light to use (Brainard et al. 1990, Lam et al. 1991 and 1992, Oren et al. 1991, Steward et al. 1991). Some found that green light was better than red one, and white light superior to yellow light, while others found no difference in efficacity. All agree however, that all light colours do have an effect. I went with soft white light bulbs, because I wanted to be sure to avoid UV.
  • UV: There was a series of studies by Lam et al. (1991 and 1992) that first reported that white light with UV was superior to white light only, but a follow-up study by the same guy with a larger group of subjects found no difference. I think it is better to avoid shining too much UV into your eyes.
  • Cost: A commenter asked me about the total cost of the project. I did not keep my receipts, but this is more or less what I paid (Sister, if you are reading this - skip the next paragraph!):

    *) 10 23W Philips CFL spiral light-bulbs: 80 Euro
    *) IKEA Mackis box woth lid: 20 Euro, but since this is a set of three boxes, you have the two smaller ones left over
    *) 10 bulb holders, switch and cable: about 20 Euro
    *) Aluminium foil, wood and construction glue: Free because filched from my parents

    Which gives a total cost of about a 120 Euros.
Most of the information above is from the book

Seasonal affective disorder and beyond light treatment for SAD and non-SAD conditions: Light Treatment for Sad and Non-Sad Conditions
By Raymond W. Lam
Published by American Psychiatric Pub, 1998
ISBN 0880488670, 9780880488679
Here are the relevant pages for your perusal (thanks, google book search!):

Brainard GC, Sherry D, Skwerer RG, et al.; J Affect Disord 20:209-216,1990
Lam RW, Buchanan A, Clark CM, Remick RA; J Clin Psychiatry 52:213-216, 1991
Lam RW, Buchanan A, Mador JA et al; J Affect Disord 24:237-243, 1992
Lewy AJ, Kern HA, Rosenthal NE, et al.; Am J psychiatry 139:1496-1498, 1982
Oren DA, Brainard GC, Johnston SH, et al.; AM J Psychiatry 148:509-511,1991
Rosenthal NE, Sack DA, Gillin C, et al.; Arch Gen Psychiatry 41:72-80,1984
Steward KT, Gaddy JR, Byrne B, et al.; Psychiatry Res 38:261-270,1991


  1. knapp: http://www.amazon.de/Philips-HF3308-01-Energy-Lichttherapiegerät/dp/B000F4OHLE/ref=pd_sim_k_6


  2. Why not just:

    1. Research the best overpriced lightbox. (this one appears science-based: http://www.sphereone.com/)
    2. Find out what bulbs it uses. (2 - 32 watt spiral fluorescent, 10,000 hour, 2100 Lumens, 82 CRI 4100K)
    3. Buy those bulbs cheap and stick them in a standard lamp! (http://www.1000bulbs.com/150-Watt-Equivalent-32-Watt-CFL/11964/)

    Seems alot easier than building your own box...

  3. Well, I could have done that, but then I would not have known that two 2100 Lumen bulbs are much too dim to have much of an effect. You need about 5000 Lux-hours per day, and those bulbs in standard lamps probably wouldn't even give you half that in any reasonable amount of time.

  4. Thanks for the technical info. That's really good to know.

    Because I'm really lazy and don't care how stuff looks,
    I made some quick and dirty light "boxes" that seem to
    work just fine:

    1. First version: I bought four clamp lights with reflectors
    and four twin socket adapters ($43 including shipping
    from Hardware World, etc.) and put 8 23 watt flourescent bulbs
    in them. I clamped these to a bookshelf and just plugged
    them into a power strip I had around. (8 x 23 watts
    is 184 watts, power strip will take 1800 so no big deal).
    Kinda big and clunky but zero work.

    2. Wanted bigger and better so I bought two 6-light vanity
    (bath, etc.) bar light fixtures at Home Depot for $14.95
    each and used wire nuts to hook them to two regular extension
    cords. (12 x 23 watts is 276 watts. My computer + monitor
    takes over 400, so no big deal.) and placed them pointing out
    on same bookshelf just above and behind my computer monitor.
    Bookshelf top and bottom are white so I think this works ok.
    My face is about 2 1/2 feet from bulbs and I can work at
    computer for 1/2 hour with them on without very much terminal
    eye strain.

    And yes, after about two weeks I really noticed a difference.
    It could be just me thinking it does (placebo) but hey, that's
    ok too. - Ray

  5. I didn't really mean to be anon,
    I think I just checked wrong box.
    Ray Heinrich

  6. Thanks Ray for your comment - you are of course right, the cheapest variant is to use a bunch of standard fixtures.

    Nice to hear that it helped you too, my sister is also very happy with the lightbox I built her.

  7. How long does it take for this treatment to take effect?

  8. According to the literature (see the pages above) you should see effects in a couple of days, if you suffer from S.A.D, that is, and you respond to the treatment, which not everybody does.

  9. Ray you sparked a wave of creative thought! Look here to see. Can't wait to build one. http://sketchup.google.com/3dwarehouse/details?mid=376e0103db78242e462862e4c91525b5&prevstart=0

  10. Nice 3d model, and a very good idea with the light-strip. Good luck with the build!

  11. I found this design really interesting and I too feel the winter blues when the light drops and it gets dark at 4:30pm and the sun rises at around 7:30am (Toronto). I had a small Phillips unit that I bought at Costco but after a few years in stopped working and this is why I searched out how to build my own. The Costco unit cost around $150 and used blue LED lights and it helped.
    I have modified your build to prevent myself from having to any wiring and while it is not as pretty as yours it still worked. I found light sockets that plug into wall sockets and bought 4 cheap power bars so I could mount these and the sockets into a box and put one more power bar on the back of the box to plug the other power bars into so I could have one wall plug. My unit has 12 of the 23W =100w bulbs and holy cow is it bright. I put the rather large unit on my desk and sit and listen to podcasts for approx. 30 min. and it feels like I have had a walk in the sun which is an amazing feeling. I remember at some point doing some research and finding that not only is the lux important but they also stressed the time of day you use it is also crucial on your condition. If you have insomnia and wake up at a given time many mornings there is a specific time of day and length of time you should use the light. I find mornings are great to get me going but there is also other factors when you should use the light.

    The question of where the light should be has been brought up and Phillips recommends it be in your peripheral vision and not to look directly at the light.

    All the best,



  12. Thanks for letting me know about your build! According to the papers I've read, the most effective time to use a lightbox is in the morning, but maybe there is some new research out?

  13. plasma, cool! good luck on the science deal. i hear it's ruthless and rewarding... and wow, those sockets with plugs, have used before but for some reason never thought of plug strips to make light bars!! great idea!

  14. Thanks - it certainly is rewarding, but I think the ruthfulness of academic life is a bit overstated - or I have been lucky so far.

  15. My brother, the Geologist/Paleontologist, thinks you've been lucky so far. But, he adds, he's been lucky so far and he's 58. Two tricks to staying lucky, he says, are never doing anything significant enough to attract attention, and always interpreting your data to support your grantee's favorite theories. (He also says: "The perception that wisdom increases with age is a by-product of the high correlation between cynicism and reality.")

  16. Can you please give me the measurements of the box from Ikea, seems that it is discounted and I am trying to find one like it? Thanks JAnet

  17. Posted this on the other page, but in case it helps anyone: Just built a simplified version using 8x 23 Watt CFL's ($27 for 12), 8x pin-type lamp holders from home depot (~$2 each, UPC: 078477107294) and a 12 ft extension cord (~$3). Total less than $50. Instead of building a box, I just hang the cord with all the bulbs from a screw in the wall.

  18. This is fantastic! really inspiring. I read somewhere where they were talking about spray painting the inside white and I thought that foil would be the way to go. I see you've done that here! and thank you for the link to the book. It is very well laid out and detailed.

  19. Boris;
    Your lightbox design has made it possible for many to get relief from SAD who otherwise could not afford the commercial products. Two of my adult daughters and I suffer from SAD and we do not look forward to winter. We live in the western United States, in the Rockie Mountains, in a valley that gets socked in by not only clouds but also fog, haze, and temperature inversions that keep air pollutants from exiting the valley. We can go for weeks without seeing the sun directly. Your design is simple, elegant, and effective.

    A word about the critics and detractors: all the buzz on various sites, such as Instructables and Reddit, about lux vs. lumen, blue light vs full spectrum, and on and on. Since this is a DIY medical device, makers of this project need to accept responsibility and figure out these things for themselves. If they're are concerned about these things they can figure out which bulbs are the safest for them. There seems to be ongoing research into how and why light therapy works with much of the older literature being confounded by newer findings. The beauty of your design is that the user can adapt the light bulbs/tubes/LEDs/etc to take advantage of the new information and technology. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks Pete, I am happy my project was of use to you!