Within the human population, there is large interindividual variability in the timing of sleep and circadian rhythms. This variability has been attributed to individual differences in sleep physiology, circadian physiology, and/or light exposure. Recent experimental evidence suggests that the latter is necessary to evoke large interindividual differences in sleep and circadian timing. We used a validated model of human sleep and circadian physiology to test the hypothesis that intrinsic differences in sleep and circadian timing are amplified by self-selected use of artificial light sources. We tested the model under 2 conditions motivated by an experimental study (Wright et al., 2013): (1) a "natural" light cycle, and (2) a "realistic" light cycle that included attenuation of light due to living indoors when natural light levels are high and use of electric light when natural light levels are low. Within these conditions, we determined the relationship between intrinsic circadian period (within the range of 23.7-24.6 h) and timing of sleep onset, sleep offset, and circadian rhythms. In addition, we simulated a work week, with fixed wake time for 5 days and free sleep times on weekends. Under both conditions, a longer intrinsic period resulted in later sleep and circadian timing. Compared to the natural condition, the realistic condition evoked more than double the variation in sleep timing across the physiological range of intrinsic circadian periods. Model predictions closely matched data from the experimental study. We found that if the intrinsic circadian period was long (>24.2 h) under the realistic condition, there was significant mismatch in sleep timing between weekdays and weekends, which is known as social jetlag. These findings indicate that individual tendencies to have very delayed schedules can be greatly amplified by self-selected modifications to the natural light/dark cycle. This has important implications for therapeutic treatment of advanced or delayed sleep phase disorders.
Keywords: circadian rhythms; light exposure; mathematical modeling; self-selection; sleep-wake timing; social jetlag.