Bright light resets the human circadian pacemaker independent of the timing of the sleep-wake cycle

Science. 1986 Aug 8;233(4764):667-71. doi: 10.1126/science.3726555.


Human circadian rhythms were once thought to be insensitive to light, with synchronization to the 24-hour day accomplished either through social contacts or the sleep-wake schedule. Yet the demonstration of an intensity-dependent neuroendocrine response to bright light has led to renewed consideration of light as a possible synchronizer of the human circadian pacemaker. In a laboratory study, the output of the circadian pacemaker of an elderly woman was monitored before and after exposure to 4 hours of bright light for seven consecutive evenings, and before and after a control study in ordinary room light while her sleep-wake schedule and social contacts remained unchanged. The exposure to bright light in the evening induced a 6-hour delay shift of her circadian pacemaker, as indicated by recordings of body temperature and cortisol secretion. The unexpected magnitude, rapidity, and stability of the shift challenge existing concepts regarding circadian phase-resetting capacity in man and suggest that exposure to bright light can indeed reset the human circadian pacemaker, which controls daily variations in physiologic, behavioral, and cognitive function.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Body Temperature
  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Light*
  • Sleep / physiology*


  • Hydrocortisone