An Interview with Jacqueline Olds, M.D., Co-Founder of SunSprite and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School
How did your interests in solar energy, health, and technology come together?
We actually got interested in bright light and health because bright light can be used as a treatment for depression that has as good a profile as antidepressant medications. So we had been prescribing artificial light boxes for patients, but thought that sunshine would be far preferable for the “administration of bright light.” In order to be effective, we thought a wearable sensor would be needed so people would know when they got the proper dose of bright light for their depression. The treatment of depression with bright light has been studied for 30 years, so we know what the effective dose is, and we could have our “SunSprite” integrate the light received over time to inform the wearer when their dose was complete.
What is SunSprite and how does it help to improve the lives of others?
So, SunSprite is a wearable light tracker (like a FitBit for light) that tells people visually (using LEDs on the sensor) when they are getting bright enough light to travel to their melanopsin cells (in the eye) to affect their melatonin and serotonin levels. It tracks how much light they get, and tells them as I said when the dose is complete. Finally, it informs people when the UV light from the sun is too bright so they should wear sunscreen. Even people who have no depression often have circadian rhythm disorders that tend to improve if they use bright light soon after waking to regularly “set” their wake-sleep (circadian) rhythm.
How does SunSprite compare to Blue Light therapy products, such as those offered by Philips?
The Sunsprite is a light sensor that measures how many lux you’re getting and whether you are getting sunlight outdoors or from an artificial light source. It rewards you with a “victory dance” of LEDs when you have reached the quota of light you need to boost mood when treating SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Blue Light therapy products are artificial lights that give you blue wavelength bright light to boost your energy when you can’t be outdoors in the sunlight, or you don’t have time to sit in front of a broad spectrum artificial 10,000 lux light for half an hour. So one is a tracker (SunSprite) and one is an actual light.
What are the most common misconceptions about the importance of sunlight in our everyday lives?
People have become so worried about skin cancer that they spend too little time in the outdoors, and some people avoid sun exposure altogether. Or they always wear sunglasses. We know that the sun can be dangerous at midday, and sunscreen should be used, but we are recommending sunshine early in the morning within two hours of waking without sunglasses. During the darker seasons, a person can also use an artificial light box to get their dose of “bright light.”
Where is the line drawn between a healthy amount of bright light and too much light? How can a person tell the difference?
Recommendations on sunlight exposure are pretty clear, and can be read about in many settings from magazines to guidelines from dermatologists. However, there is a controversy amongst dermatologists of whether we might all need 20 minutes a day of sun for vitamin D reasons, as well as circadian rhythm purposes. But getting bright light first thing in the day to “wake up the brain,” which really means decreasing melatonin and getting serotonin flowing, is a little obscure for most people. People tend to get this idea mixed up with vitamin D concerns, and forget that during most of human history it was inevitable that people got bright light outdoors on a daily basis. Now we live so much of our life indoors, with not enough light in the day, and too much light in the night, that it is not surprising that many people have trouble with their sleep–awake cycle!
Do you have a favorite success story directly influenced by the impact of SunSprite?
There have been several testimonials from people who live in California or Australia saying that they have gotten so used to avoiding the sun that they needed their SunSprite to remind them to get outdoors. “Getting outdoors” has an additional set of anti-depressant qualities besides bright light, namely the beauty of nature—such as when you walk somewhere with green trees—and exercise.
Did you have a specific mentor that especially influenced you in your development of SunSprite?
We know an engineer, Tom Hayes, who was also one of our founders, who had been making a sensor to let the wearer know when they got too much sun. He felt the SunSprite sensor would be slightly different but eminently “do-able.” He has been tinkering with gizmos all his life, so he turned out to be a wonderful advisor!
In your opinion, how do you see light trackers being implemented in future applications and technologies?
I think vitamin D and circadian rhythm are so important for health that light sensors will eventually be built into major wearable technology. I am not sure why the runway has been so long in the public learning about this, but we should remember that there were pedometers around for years before they really caught on!
What advice do you have for people looking to build a career focused on integrating technology and health in new ways?
I think keeping up with medical breakthroughs, and learning where the difficulties are in the world of medicine, is a good way of gradually figuring out what is missing, and therefore needed, in the world of technology and health. Doing studies that show, for example, how patients in the hospital recovering from surgery who have windows allowing sunshine in usually do better than patients in windowless rooms. Such studies allow us to recognize the enormous impact small changes even in the architecture of hospitals could make!