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Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2007;9(3):291-300.

The phase shift hypothesis for the circadian component of winter depression.

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  • 1Oregon Health & Science University, Department of Psychiatry, Sleep and Mood Disorders Laboratory, Portland, Oregon, USA.


The finding that bright light can suppress melatonin production led to the study of two situations, indeed, models, of light deprivation: totally blind people and winter depressives. The leading hypothesis for winter depression (seasonal affective disorder, or SAD) is the phase shift hypothesis (PSH). The PSH was recently established in a study in which SAD patients were given low-dose melatonin in the afternoon/evening to cause phase advances, or in the morning to cause phase delays, or placebo. The prototypical phase-delayed patient, as well as the smaller subgroup of phase-advanced patients, optimally responded to melatonin given at the correct time. Symptom severity improved as circadian misalignment was corrected. Circadian misalignment is best measured as the time interval between the dim light melatonin onset (DLMO) and mid-sleep. Using the operational definition of the plasma DLMO as the interpolated time when melatonin levels continuously rise above the threshold of 10 pg/mL, the average interval between DLMO and mid-sleep in healthy controls is 6 hours, which is associated with optimal mood in SAD patients.

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