Systematic review of drugs that modify the circadian system’s phase-shifting responses to light exposure

Robert Lee, Austin McGee, Fabian Xosé Fernandez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


We searched PubMed for primary research quantifying drug modification of light-induced circadian phase-shifting in rodents. This search, conducted for work published between 1960 and 2018, yielded a total of 146 papers reporting results from 901 studies. Relevant articles were those with any extractable data on phase resetting in wildtype (non-trait selected) rodents administered a drug, alongside a vehicle/control group, near or at the time of exposure. Most circadian pharmacology experiments were done using drugs thought to act directly on either the brain’s central pacemaker, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), the SCN’s primary relay, the retinohypothalamic tract, secondary pathways originating from the medial/dorsal raphe nuclei and intergeniculate leaflet, or the brain’s sleep-arousal centers. While the neurotransmitter systems underlying these circuits were of particular interest, including those involving glutamate, gamma-aminobutyric acid, serotonin, and acetylcholine, other signaling modalities have also been assessed, including agonists and antagonists of receptors linked to dopamine, histamine, endocannabinoids, adenosine, opioids, and second-messenger pathways downstream of glutamate receptor activation. In an effort to identify drugs that unduly influence circadian responses to light, we quantified the net effects of each drug class by ratioing the size of the phase-shift observed after administration to that observed with vehicle in a given experiment. This allowed us to organize data across the literature, compare the relative efficacy of one mechanism versus another, and clarify which drugs might best suppress or potentiate phase resetting. Aggregation of the available data in this manner suggested that several candidates might be clinically relevant as auxiliary treatments to suppress ectopic light responses during shiftwork or amplify the circadian effects of timed bright light therapy. Future empirical research will be necessary to validate these possibilities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)866-879
Number of pages14
Issue number4
StatePublished - Mar 2022
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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