Dim light in the evening causes coordinated realignment of circadian rhythms, sleep, and short-term memory

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Sep 28;118(39):e2101591118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2101591118.


Light provides the primary signal for entraining circadian rhythms to the day/night cycle. In addition to rods and cones, the retina contains a small population of photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (pRGCs) expressing the photopigment melanopsin (OPN4). Concerns have been raised that exposure to dim artificial lighting in the evening (DLE) may perturb circadian rhythms and sleep patterns, and OPN4 is presumed to mediate these effects. Here, we examine the effects of 4-h, 20-lux DLE on circadian physiology and behavior in mice and the role of OPN4 in these responses. We show that 2 wk of DLE induces a phase delay of ∼2 to 3 h in mice, comparable to that reported in humans. DLE-induced phase shifts are unaffected in Opn4 -/- mice, indicating that rods and cones are capable of driving these responses in the absence of melanopsin. DLE delays molecular clock rhythms in the heart, liver, adrenal gland, and dorsal hippocampus. It also reverses short-term recognition memory performance, which is associated with changes in preceding sleep history. In addition, DLE modifies patterns of hypothalamic and cortical cFos signals, a molecular correlate of recent neuronal activity. Together, our data show that DLE causes coordinated realignment of circadian rhythms, sleep patterns, and short-term memory process in mice. These effects are particularly relevant as DLE conditions-due to artificial light exposure-are experienced by the majority of the populace on a daily basis.

Keywords: circadian rhythms; dim light in the evening; long-day photoperiod; melanopsin; short-term memory.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Female
  • Light*
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Retinal Ganglion Cells / cytology
  • Retinal Ganglion Cells / physiology*
  • Rod Opsins / physiology*
  • Sleep / physiology*


  • Rod Opsins
  • melanopsin