Let there be light: how light can affect our mood

If you're looking for an indication of how intricately human physiology is tied to the environment our species evolved in, you need look no further than our circadian clock. For, the internal environment of our body is regulated by 24-hour cycles that closely mirror the time it takes for the earth to rotate once on its axis. Moreover, these cycles are shaped by changes in the external environment (e.g. fluctuating levels of daylight) associated with that rotation. Indeed, this 24-hour cycle regulates everything from sleep to rate of metabolism to hormone release, and it is so refined that it continues even in the absence of environmental cues. In other words, even if you place a person in a room with no windows to see when the sun rises and sets and no clocks to know the time, he will maintain a regular circadian rhythm that approximates 24 hours.

Despite the ability of circadian rhythms to persist in the absence of environmental cues, however, our body clock is very responsive to the presence of light in the external environment. It uses information about illumination levels to synchronize diurnal physiological functions to occur during daylight hours and nocturnal functions to occur during the night. Thus, the presence or absence of light in the environment can indicate whether systems that promote wakefulness or sleep should be activated. In this way, ambient light (or lack thereof) becomes an important signal that can lead to the initiation of an array of biological functions.

It may not be surprising then that abnormalities in environmental illumination (e.g. it is light when the body's clock expects it to be dark) can have a generally disrupting effect on physiological function. Indeed, unexpected changes in light exposure levels have been associated with sleep disturbances, cognitive irregularities, and even mood disorders. Many of these problems are thought to occur due to lack of accord between circadian rhythms and environmental light; however, a role now is also being recognized for the ability of light to affect mood directly, without first influencing circadian rhythms.

Physiology of light detection

For light to be able to influence the 24-hour clock, information about light in the environment must first be communicated to the brain. In non-mammalian vertebrates (e.g. fish, amphibians), there are photoreceptors outside of the eye that can accomplish this task. For example, some animals like lizards have a photoreceptive area below the skin on the top of their heads. This area, sometimes referred to as the third eye, responds to stimulation from light and sends information regarding light in the environment to areas of the brain involved in regulating circadian rhythms.

In humans and other mammals, however, it seems the eyes act as the primary devices for carrying information about light to the brain--even when that information isn't used in the process of image formation. The fact that some blind patients are able to maintain circadian rhythms and display circadian-related physiological changes in response to light stimulation suggests that the retinal mechanism for detecting light for non-image forming functions may involve cells other than the traditional photoreceptors (i.e. rods and cones). While up until about ten years ago it was thought that rods and cones were the only photoreceptive cells in the retina, it is now believed there may be a third class of photoreceptive cell. These cells, called intrinsically photoreceptive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs), can respond to light independently of rods and cones. They are thought to have a limited role in conscious sight and image formation, but they may play an important part in transmitting information about environmental light to the brain.

ipRGCs project to various areas of the brain thought to be involved in the coordination of circadian rhythms, but their most important connection is to the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN). The SCN are paired structures found in the hypothalamus that each contain only about 10,000 neurons. Although 10,000 neurons is a relatively paltry number compared to other areas of the brain, these combined 20,000 neurons make up what is often referred to as the "master clock" of the body. Through an ingenious mechanism involving cycles of gene transcription and suppression (see here for more about this mechanism), the cells of the SCN independently display circadian patterns of activity, acting as reliable timekeepers for the body. Projections from the SCN to various other brain regions are responsible for coordinating circadian activity throughout the brain.

Although the cells in the SCN are capable of maintaining circadian rhythms on their own, they need information from the external environment to match their oscillatory activity up with the solar day. This is where input from ipRGCs comes in; most of this input is supplied via a pathway that travels directly from the retina to the SCN called the retinohypothalamic tract. This tract uses glutamate signaling to notify the SCN when there is light in the external environment, ensuring SCN activity is in the diurnal phase when there is daylight present.

Thus, there is a complex machinery responsible for maintaining physiological activity on a semblance of a 24-hour schedule and matching that circadian cycle up with what is really going on in the outside world. When the operation of this machinery is disrupted in some way, however, it can contribute to a variety of problems.

Indirect effects of light on mood

The brain has evolved a number of mechanisms that allow circadian rhythms to remain synchronized with the solar day. However, when there are rapid changes in the timing of illumination in the external environment, this can lead to a desynchronization of circadian rhythms. This desynchronization then seems to have a disruptive effect on cognition and mood; thus, these effects are described as indirect effects of light on mood because light must first affect circadian rhythms, which in turn affect mood.

Transmeridian travel and shift work

An example of this type of circadian disruption occurs during rapid transmeridian travel, such as flying from New York to California. Crossing multiple time zones causes the body's clock to become discordant with the solar day; in the case of flying from New York to California the body would expect the sun to go down three hours later than it actually would in the new time zone. This can result in a condition colloquially known as jet lag, but medically referred to by terms that imply circadian disruptions: desynchronosis or circadian dysrhythmia.

Transmeridian travel can lead to a number of both cognitive and physical symptoms. Sleep disturbances afterwards are common, as are other mood disturbances like irritability and fatigue. Physical complaints like headache also frequently occur, and studies have found individuals who undergo transmeridian travel subsequently display decreased physical performance and endurance. Transmeridian travel has even been found to delay ovulation and disrupt the menstrual cycle in women. One study found airline workers who had been exposed to transmeridian travel for four years displayed deficits in cognitive performance, suggesting there may be an accumulative effect of jet lag on cognition.

Similar disruptions in cognition and physiological function can be seen in individuals who are exposed to high levels of nighttime illumination (e.g. those who work a night shift). People who are awake during nighttime hours and attempt to sleep during the day generally experience sleep disturbances that are associated with cognitive deficits and even symptoms of depression. The long-term effects of continued sleep/wake cycle disruption due to shift work involve a variety of negative outcomes, including an increased risk of cancer.

Seasonal affective disorder

In some cases of depression, symptoms begin to appear as the daylight hours become shorter in fall and winter months. The symptoms then often decrease in the spring or summer, and re-occur annually. This type of seasonal oscillation of depressive symptoms is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and circadian rhythms are hypothesized to be at the heart of the affliction. The leading hypotheses regarding the etiology of SAD suggest it is associated with a desynchronization of circadian rhythms caused by seasonal changes in the length of the day.

According to this hypothesis, in patients with SAD circadian rhythms that are influenced by light become delayed when the sun rises later in the winter. However, some cycles (like the sleep-wake cycle) aren't delayed in the same manner, leading to a desynchronization between  biological rhythms and the circadian oscillations of the SCN. One approach to treating SAD that has shown promise has been to expose patients to bright artificial light in the morning. This is meant to mimic the type of morning light exposure patients would receive during the spring and summer, and possibly shift their circadian rhythms (via the retinohypothalamic tract--see above) to regain synchrony. Indeed, studies have found bright light therapy to be just as effective as fluoxetine (Prozac) in treating patients with SAD.

Direct effects of light on mood

In the examples discussed so far, light exposure is hypothesized to lead to changes in mood due to the effects it can have on circadian rhythms. However, it is also becoming recognized that light exposure may be able to directly alter cognition and mood. The mechanisms underlying these effects are still poorly understood, but elucidating them may further aid us in understanding how light may be implicated in mood disorders.

The first studies in this area found that exposure to bright light decreased sleepiness, increased alertness, and improved performance on psychomotor vigilance tasks. More recently, it was observed that exposure to blue wavelength light activated areas of the brain involved in executive functions; another study found that exposure to blue wavelength light increased activity in areas of the brain like the amygdala and hypothalamus during the processing of emotional stimuli.

While it is still unclear what some of these direct effects on brain activity mean in functional terms, awareness of the potential effects of blue wavelength light has led to the investigation of how the use of electronic devices before bed might affect sleep. The results are harrowing for those of us who are prone to use a computer, phone, or e-reader leading up to bedtime: a recent study found reading an e-reader for several hours before bed led to difficulty falling asleep and decreased alertness in the morning as well as caused delays in the timing of the circadian clock.

Thus, it does seem that light is capable of affecting cognition and mood directly, and the effects may be surprisingly extensive. Interestingly, these types of effects have also been observed in studies with blind individuals, suggesting that direct effects of light exposure (like indirect effects) may be triggered by information sent via the non-image forming cells in the retina (e.g. ipRGCs). Despite the fact that this is a pathway by which light can affect mood without first influencing circadian rhythms, however, there is evidence circadian rhythms can still moderate that effect, as the direct effects of light may differ depending on the time of day the exposure occurs.

Light's powerful influence

Research into the effects of light on the brain has identified a potentially important role for light exposure in influencing mood and cognition. However, there is still much to be learned about the ways in which light is capable of exerting these types of effects. Nevertheless, this important area of research has brought to light (no pun intended) a previously unconsidered factor in the etiology of mood disorders. Furthermore, it has begun to raise awareness to the effects light might be having even during seemingly innocuous activities like using electronic devices before bed. When one considers how important a role sunlight has played in the survival of our species, it makes sense that the functioning of our bodies is so closely intertwined with the timing of the solar day. Perhaps what is surprising is that the advent of artificial lighting led us to believe that we could overcome the influence of that relationship. Recent research, however, suggests that our connection to daylight is more powerful than we had imagined.

LeGates, T., Fernandez, D., & Hattar, S. (2014). Light as a central modulator of circadian rhythms, sleep and affect Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15 (7), 443-454 DOI: 10.1038/nrn3743