Quantifying human circadian pacemaker response to brief, extended, and repeated light stimuli over the phototopic range

J Biol Rhythms. 1999 Dec;14(6):500-15. doi: 10.1177/074873099129001073.


The authors' previous models have been able to describe accurately the effects of extended (approximately 5 h) bright-light (>4000 lux) stimuli on the phase and amplitude of the human circadian pacemaker, but they are not sufficient to represent the surprising human sensitivity to both brief pulses of bright light and light of more moderate intensities. Therefore, the authors have devised a new model in which a dynamic stimulus processor (Process L) intervenes between the light stimuli and the traditional representation of the circadian pacemaker as a self-sustaining limit-cycle oscillator (Process P). The overall model incorporating Process L and Process P is intended to allow the prediction of phase shifts to photic stimuli of any temporal pattern (extended and brief light episodes) and any light intensity in the photopic range. Two time constants emerge in the Process L model: the characteristic duration for necessary bright-light pulses to achieve their full effect (5-10 min) and the characteristic stimulus-free (dark) interval that can be tolerated without incurring an excessive penalty in phase shifting (30-80 min). The effect of reducing light intensity is incorporated in Process L as an extension of the time necessary for the light pulse to be fully realized (a power-law relation between time and intensity). This new model generates a number of new testable hypotheses, including the surprising prediction that 24-h cycles consisting of 8 h of darkness and 16 h of only approximately 3.5 lux would be capable of entraining a large fraction of the adult population (approximately 45%). Experimental data on the response of the human circadian system to lower light intensities and briefer stimuli are needed to allow for further refinement and validation of the model proposed here.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Biological Clocks / physiology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Photic Stimulation