Humans and other organisms have adapted to a 24-h solar cycle in response to life on Earth. The rotation of the planet on its axis and its revolution around the sun cause predictable daily and seasonal patterns in day length. To successfully anticipate and adapt to these patterns in the environment, a variety of biological processes oscillate with a daily rhythm of approximately 24 h in length. These rhythms arise from hierarchally-coupled cellular clocks generated by positive and negative transcription factors of core circadian clock gene expression. From these endogenous cellular clocks, overt rhythms in activity and patterns in hormone secretion and other homeostatic processes emerge. These circadian rhythms in physiology and behaviour can be organised by a variety of cues, although they are most potently entrained by light. In recent history, there has been a major change from naturally-occurring light cycles set by the sun, to artificial and sometimes erratic light cycles determined by the use of electric lighting. Virtually every individual living in an industrialised country experiences light at night (LAN) but, despite its prevalence, the biological effects of such unnatural lighting have not been fully considered. Using female Siberian hamsters (Phodopus sungorus), we investigated the effects of chronic nightly exposure to dim light on daily rhythms in locomotor activity, serum cortisol concentrations and brain expression of circadian clock proteins (i.e. PER1, PER2, BMAL1). Although locomotor activity remained entrained to the light cycle, the diurnal fluctuation of cortisol concentrations was blunted and the expression patterns of clock proteins in the suprachiasmatic nucleus and hippocampus were altered. These results demonstrate that chronic exposure to dim LAN can dramatically affect fundamental cellular function and emergent physiology.
© 2013 British Society for Neuroendocrinology.