I have been actively engaged in research for the past 35 years, during which I have explored ways to understand the human brain and mind in health and disease. I have focused particularly on developing novel treatments that are ready to use right now. Often the inspiration for these treatments has come from thinking about the brain in new ways.
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You can reach Dr. Rosenthal with research inquiries through his Contact Page here. Please use “Research” as your subject line.
1) Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and light therapy
My colleagues and I originally described Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in the 1980’s and gave it its name. Until that time, many people recognized that they did not like short, dark, cloudy days. What we established, however, is that for millions of people with SAD these days actually cause significant distress and disability, and for millions more – though somewhat less severely affected – decreased energy, creativity, and productivity (The Winter Blues). We pioneered the use of bright light therapy to improve mood and energy level in people with both SAD and the winter blues. Our original description of the syndrome and its treatment is shown in the link below.
This paper has been cited well over a thousand times and is a Citation Classic. Our research findings have been replicated by researchers in many countries, and light therapy is now used by millions of people worldwide.
My principal collaborator in this and other research studies, Tom Wehr, and I went on to describe a form of summer-SAD, in which people become depressed in summer and feel better in winter. We have suggested that these people may be susceptible to the extreme heat or intense light of summertime.
2) Sleep reduction as a final common pathway in the development of mania
Before my colleagues and I wrote this paper, it was known that many diverse life circumstances could result in mania: For example, the birth of a baby, an Irish wake, or an overnight drive. We hypothesized that all these different stresses produce mania through a common mechanism: by causing sleep deprivation. The importance of this finding is that it had immediate treatment implications: Understanding the crucial role of sleep deprivation in producing mania enabled doctors and other therapists to recommend that people with bipolar disorder avoid sleep deprivation whenever possible to prevent them from switching into mania. This insight has become part of the standard care of bipolar disorder. Here is the paper that initially suggested this treatment strategy.
3) Shifting the sleep/wake cycle by means of light and dark
Some people have tremendous difficulty falling asleep and waking up at conventional times. They are known as extreme night owls. More formally, they are said to suffer from a condition known as delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS). If people with DSPS have to function in an ordinary 9 to 5 world, they suffer because they do not feel wide awake until about midday, thereby effectively losing a significant portion of the working day. Also, they struggle to make it in to work on time, which runs them into trouble with employers.
In a controlled study, my colleagues and I found that by exposing these people to bright light in the morning and dim light in the evening, we could shift their daily (circadian) rhythms earlier, making it easier for them to function well on a conventional schedule.
4) Mental health benefits of Transcendental Meditation (TM)
When a patient with bipolar disorder told me that his regular practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM) was helping to stabilize his moods, I was inspired to refresh my own TM training, recommend TM to some other patients, and research it’s potential benefits in both bipolar disorder and combat-related post-traumatic stress-disorder (PTSD). A pilot study of TM for this latter group was highly promising, with PTSD sufferers reporting on average decrease of fifty percent decrease in their PTSD symptoms.
A review of the literature (well over 300 peer-reviewed articles) suggests that TM may be a valuable treatment for people with anxiety, depression, and various stress-related and pain syndromes. These benefits are not only psychological in nature, but also physical, and the American Heart Association has recommended TM as an alternative treatment method for reducing high blood pressure. I reviewed the evidence for the benefits of TM, drawing on research studies, and clinical and personal information in the book, Transcendence: Healing and Transformation through Transcendental Meditation.
5) Botox for depression
The so-called “facial feedback hypothesis,” which goes all the way back to Charles Darwin and William James, suggests that frowning make us feel sad and smiling makes us feel happy. In other words, facial expressions can influence emotions, not just the other way around. With this hypothesis in mind my colleague, Eric Finzi and I conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of Botox injected between the eyebrows (into the frown muscles) in people with depression. We found that Botox worked, and those who received the active drug experienced a far greater improvement in mood compared to those who received a salt water control .
6) Pheromones for the treatment of social anxiety disorder
Just as I have done for the past 30 years, I continue to explore off-the-shelf ready-to-use treatments in novel ways, in the hope of finding new ways to help people who suffer the horrible pain of emotional illness. It has been a great privilege to be able to make a contribution in these areas, and I look forward to continuing to do so as long as good ideas come my way and I am able to do so.
Click research articles to view a list of links to articles, research and publications that Dr. Rosenthal and his colleagues have done over the past 30 years.