Acute exposure to low-level light at night is sufficient to induce neurological changes and depressive-like behavior

Mol Psychiatry. 2020 May;25(5):1080-1093. doi: 10.1038/s41380-019-0430-4. Epub 2019 May 28.


The advent and wide-spread adoption of electric lighting over the past century has profoundly affected the circadian organization of physiology and behavior for many individuals in industrialized nations; electric lighting in homes, work environments, and public areas have extended daytime activities into the evening, thus, increasing night-time exposure to light. Although initially assumed to be innocuous, chronic exposure to light at night (LAN) is now associated with increased incidence of cancer, metabolic disorders, and affective problems in humans. However, little is known about potential acute effects of LAN. To determine whether acute exposure to low-level LAN alters brain function, adult male, and female mice were housed in either light days and dark nights (LD; 14 h of 150 lux:10 h of 0 lux) or light days and low level light at night (LAN; 14 h of 150 lux:10 h of 5 lux). Mice exposed to LAN on three consecutive nights increased depressive-like responses compared to mice housed in dark nights. In addition, female mice exposed to LAN increased central tendency in the open field. LAN was associated with reduced hippocampal vascular endothelial growth factor-A (VEGF-A) in both male and female mice, as well as increased VEGFR1 and interleukin-1β mRNA expression in females, and reduced brain derived neurotrophic factor mRNA in males. Further, LAN significantly altered circadian rhythms (activity and temperature) and circadian gene expression in female and male mice, respectively. Altogether, this study demonstrates that acute exposure to LAN alters brain physiology and can be detrimental to well-being in otherwise healthy individuals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / genetics
  • Circadian Rhythm / genetics
  • Circadian Rhythm / radiation effects
  • Depression / etiology*
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / metabolism
  • Hippocampus / radiation effects*
  • Interleukin-1beta / genetics
  • Light / adverse effects*
  • Lighting / adverse effects*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A / genetics


  • Bdnf protein, mouse
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • Interleukin-1beta
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A
  • vascular endothelial growth factor A, mouse