The winter dark and cold are hard on the mental health of Canadians, and especially hard on the people running Canadian Forces Station Alert in the High Arctic, the most northerly inhabited place on the planet.
Now after more than 60 years, the Canadian military has come up with a solution to help the people deployed there cope with sleeplessness, a common symptom in a place where the sun disappears entirely for four months.
A ground-breaking military study tested "light visors" — devices worn on the head that beam light into the eyes — on eight people at CFS Alert and found the treatment dramatically improved the quality of their sleep.
So successful were the visors, which had no side-effects, that the researchers are considering them for use in other northern outposts staffed by the military.
The findings are in a newly published study of "countermeasures for the treatment of discordant human circadian rhythms."
The 23-day study last year exposed the eight subjects to short periods of visor-produced light at the right time of day to better regulate their levels of melatonin, the so-called "darkness hormone." Researchers used a commercial, off-the-shelf product designed and produced by a firm in central Maine more than two decades ago.
The results were dramatic: "The light treatment led to qualitatively better sleep," concludes the report, with personnel sleeping more deeply and waking less.
Not all of the potential subjects at CFS Alert needed the visors — five people adapted by themselves to the darkness.
'Those who do not expose themselves to evening outdoor light have no sleep problems during Arctic summer.' — Military spokeswoman Victoria Totten
But the researchers said that for those who were adversely affected, the light visors were a simple, effective solution that could be used more widely.
The $60,000 study is significant for being the first attempt to find a solution to sleeplessness at CFS Alert, even though the Canadian government has been operating the station since about 1950.
At its peak, the remote facility had more than 200 people working at the station, where winter lows routinely reach –50 C. Today, there’s a permanent population of some 80 people, about half of them military.
The military’s research arm, Defence Research and Development Canada, also carried out an experiment last year to find ways to mitigate the reverse problem, that is, the constant light of Arctic summers.
Stay indoors in summer
"The summer trial indicated that those who venture outside in the evenings have compromised sleep due to evening light exposure," spokeswoman Victoria Totten said in an email.
"Those who do not expose themselves to evening outdoor light have no sleep problems during Arctic summer."
The findings reinforce previous work by the military showing light therapy also mitigates "jet lag" and "shift lag," both common problems among enlisted personnel, especially those deploying overseas.
"The knowledge gained in this project is expected to also be applicable to the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force in the conduct of their operations in the Arctic environment," Totten said from Toronto.
Two scientific reports on the findings have been published in external journals, with a third article expected to appear early this year.
A tiny firm in Fryeburg, Maine, supplied the light visors, which currently retail for $109 US each.
"We are such a small company," said Sam Lennon-Rose, spokesman for Physician Engineered Products. "It is always nice to hear positive feedback that our devices seem to be helping people."
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