Rensselaer Research Review Summer 2009
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Building a Better Protein
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Mariana Figuero
Mariana Figueiro, Ph.D.
Lighting Research Center
Light and Health Program Director
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Sleep disturbances increase as we age. Some studies report more than half of seniors 65 years of age or older suffer from chronic sleep disturbances. Researchers have long believed that the sleep disturbances common among the elderly often result from a disruption of the body’s circadian rhythms — biological cycles that repeat approximately every 24 hours.

In recent years, scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center and elsewhere have demonstrated that blue light is the most effective at stimulating the circadian system when combined with the appropriate light intensity, spatial distribution, timing, and duration. A team at the Lighting Research Center (LRC) has tested a goggle-like device designed to deliver blue light directly to the eyes to improve sleep quality in older adults.

Developing Irregular Sleep Patterns

“Light and dark patterns are the major synchronizer of circadian rhythms to the 24-hour solar day,” said Mariana Figueiro, Ph.D., Lighting Research Center Light and Health Program director and principal investigator on the project.  “Light stimulus travels through the retina, the light-sensitive nerve tissue lining the back wall of the eye, to reach the master clock in the brain. However, a combination of age-related changes in the eye and a more sedentary lifestyle may reduce the amount of light stimulus reaching an older person’s retina, therefore reducing the amount of light for the circadian system.”

As we age, the lens in the eye thickens and the pupil shrinks, reducing the amount of light passing through to the retina.  Making matters worse, in some cases, such as with persons with Alzheimer’s disease, the circadian system may require a stronger light stimulus due to deteriorating neural processes in the brain.  These physical and neural changes can lead to muted signals to the circadian system. Factor in environmental influences, such as an indoor lifestyle with less access to daylight, and you have a perfect scenario for the development of irregular sleep-activity patterns, according to Figueiro. 

Increasing Daylight Exposure

The research team explains that a marked increase in daytime lighting levels can counteract the age-dependent losses in retinal light exposure by providing a stronger signal to the circadian system.  However, the color and intensity of commercially available lighting systems, like those used in senior residences, assisted-living facilities, and nursing homes, are designed for visual effectiveness and minimal energy use and not necessarily efficacious for generating light to stimulate the older circadian system. 

Commercially-available “white” light sources advertised to treat circadian-related sleep disorders are usually very bright light and can cause glare and compromise compliance.

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“Researchers Develop Light-Treatment Device
To Improve Sleep Quality in the Elderly”
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