Simulations of light effects on the human circadian pacemaker: implications for assessment of intrinsic period

Am J Physiol. 1996 Jan;270(1 Pt 2):R271-82. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.1996.270.1.R271.


The sensitivity of the human circadian system to light has been the subject of considerable debate. Using computer simulations of a recent quantitative model for the effects of light on the human circadian system, we investigated these effects of light during different experimental protocols. The results of the simulations indicate that the nonuniform distribution over the circadian cycle of exposure to ordinary room light seen in classical free-run studies, in which subjects select their exposure to light and darkness, can result in an observed period of approximately 25 h, even when the intrinsic period of the subject's endogenous circadian pacemaker is much closer to 24 h. Other simulation results suggest that accurate assessment of the true intrinsic period of the human circadian pacemaker requires low ambient light intensities (approximately 10-15 lx) during scheduled wake episodes, desynchrony of the imposed light-dark cycle from the endogenous circadian oscillator, and a study length of at least 20 days. Although these simulations await further experimental substantiation, they highlight the sensitivity to light of the human circadian system and the potential confounding influence of light on the assessment of the intrinsic period of the circadian pacemaker.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biological Clocks*
  • Circadian Rhythm / radiation effects*
  • Computer Simulation*
  • Humans
  • Light*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Photoperiod