Circadian responses to fragmented light: Research synopsis in humans

Research output: Contribution to journalShort surveypeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Light is the chief signal used by the human circadian pacemaker to maintain precise biological timekeeping. Though it has been historically assumed that light resets the pacemaker’s rhythm in a dose-dependent fashion, a number of studies report enhanced circadian photosensitivity to the initial moments of light exposure, such that there are quickly diminishing returns on phase-shifting the longer the light is shown. In the current review, we summarize findings from a family of experiments conducted over two decades in the research wing of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital that examined the human pacemaker’s responses to standardized changes in light patterns generated from an overhead fluorescent ballast. Across several hundred days of laboratory recording, the research group observed phase-shifts in the body temperature and melatonin rhythms that scaled with illuminance. However, as suspected, phase resetting was optimized when exposure occurred as a series of minute-long episodes separated by periods of intervening darkness. These observations set the stage for a more recent program of study at Stanford University that evaluated whether the human pacemaker was capable of integrating fragmented bursts of light in much the same way it perceived steady luminance. The results here suggest that ultra-short durations of light—lasting just 1-2 seconds in total—can elicit pacemaker responses rivaling those created by continuous hour-long stimulation if those few seconds of light are evenly distributed across the hour as discreet 2-millisecond pulses. We conclude our review with a brief discussion of these findings and their potential application in future phototherapy techniques.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)337-348
Number of pages12
JournalYale Journal of Biology and Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2019


  • Circadian
  • Intermittent
  • Light fractionation
  • Light treatment
  • Millisecond flashes
  • Phase shifting
  • Phototherapy
  • Pulse

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


Dive into the research topics of 'Circadian responses to fragmented light: Research synopsis in humans'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this