Millisecond flashes of light phase delay the human circadian clock during sleep

J Biol Rhythms. 2014 Oct;29(5):370-6. doi: 10.1177/0748730414546532. Epub 2014 Sep 16.


The human circadian timing system is most sensitive to the phase-shifting effects of light during the biological nighttime, a time at which humans are most typically asleep. The overlap of sleep with peak sensitivity to the phase-shifting effects of light minimizes the effectiveness of using light as a countermeasure to circadian misalignment in humans. Most current light exposure treatments for such misalignment are mostly ineffective due to poor compliance and secondary changes that cause sleep deprivation. Using a 16-day, parallel group design, we examined whether a novel sequence of light flashes delivered during sleep could evoke phase changes in the circadian system without disrupting sleep. Healthy volunteers participated in a 2-week circadian stabilization protocol followed by a 2-night laboratory stay. During the laboratory session, they were exposed during sleep to either darkness (n = 7) or a sequence of 2-msec light flashes given every 30 sec (n = 6) from hours 2 to 3 after habitual bedtime. Changes in circadian timing (phase) and micro- and macroarchitecture of sleep were assessed. Subjects exposed to the flash sequence during sleep exhibited a delay in the timing of their circadian salivary melatonin rhythm compared with the control dark condition (p < 0.05). Confirmation that the flashes penetrated the eyelids is presented by the occurrence of an evoked response in the EEG. Despite the robust effect on circadian timing, there were no large changes in either the amount or spectral content of sleep (p values > 0.30) during the flash stimulus. Exposing sleeping individuals to 0.24 sec of light spread over an hour shifted the timing of the circadian clock and did so without major alterations to sleep itself. While a greater number of matched subjects and more research will be necessary to ascertain whether these light flashes affect sleep, our data suggest that this type of passive phototherapy might be developed as a useful treatment for circadian misalignment in humans.

Trial registration: NCT01119365.

Keywords: circadian; electroencephalography; human; light; phase shift; sleep.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Circadian Clocks / physiology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Darkness
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Light
  • Male
  • Melatonin / metabolism
  • Phototherapy / methods
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sleep Deprivation / metabolism
  • Sleep Deprivation / physiopathology
  • Work Schedule Tolerance / physiology


  • Melatonin

Associated data