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Ciba Found Symp. 1995;183:254-90; discussion 290-302.

The effect of light on the human circadian pacemaker.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.


The periodic light-dark cycle provides the primary signal by which the human circadian pacemaker is synchronized to the 24 h day. Earlier reports that social contacts were more effective than light in the entrainment of human circadian rhythms have not been supported by more recent studies. In fact, we have found that exposure to a cyclic light stimulus can induce strong (type 0) resetting of the human circadian pacemaker, indicating that exposure to light affects the pacemaker's amplitude of oscillation as well as its phase. These findings support Winfree's long-standing prediction, based on his pioneering recognition of the importance of amplitude in the analysis of circadian clocks, that strong (type 0) resetting would prove to be a common property of circadian resetting responses to light across a wide array of species, from algae to humans. Research on humans has shown, for the first time, that the response of the circadian pacemaker to light depends not only on the timing, intensity and duration of light exposure, but also on the number of consecutive daily light exposures. Exposure to light of a critical strength at a critical phase can even drive the human circadian pacemaker to its region of singularity, akin to temporarily 'stopping' the human circadian clock. These findings have important implications for the treatment of circadian rhythm sleep disorders, because properly timed exposure to light can reset the human clock to any desired hour within one to three days.

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