Resources | Reports | Human Centric Lighting | Feb 27, 2018

New LRC Study Tests the Impact of Circadian Light on Alertness in Office Workers

In 2017 the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute published a groundbreaking study showing that office workers who receive a robust dose of circadian-effective light experience better sleep, and lower levels of depression and stress, than those who spend their days in dim or low light levels. The team of LRC researchers, led by Dr. Mariana Figueiro and sponsored by the U.S. General Services Administration, measured existing light levels for 109 participants at five federal office buildings designed to maximize daylight availability indoors. The research team found that even in open offices with many, large windows, office workers were not receiving enough light to stimulate their circadian system during the day, due to factors such as season, cloud cover, desk orientation, and window shade position.

In response to these findings, the LRC team theorized that supplemental electric lighting could be used to ensure that office workers receive enough light during the day—and put their theory to the test in this new study, installing circadian-effective lighting for 68 participants at two additional U.S. federal government office sites and two U.S. embassies, and evaluating whether the lighting intervention would reduce sleepiness and increase alertness, vitality, and energy. The U.S. embassy sites, in Reykjavík, Iceland and Riga, Latvia, near the Arctic, experience a dramatic reduction in daylight hours and extended darkness in winter. The federal government office sites, the White River Junction VA Medical Center in Vermont, and the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center, near Washington, D.C., also experience a reduction in daylight hours during winter, although not quite so severe as that experienced near the Arctic circle.

A scholarly article detailing the study’s results has just been published in the peer-reviewed journal Lighting Research and Technology. The LRC is one of the few groups actually conducting light and health research out in the field.

“We are supporting this type of research so we can learn more about the connections between lighting and health,” said Bryan Steverson, Program Advisor with GSA’s Office of Federal High-Performance Buildings. “The data from this research will help support our efforts in developing new lighting practices that can optimize health benefits for federal employees working in our buildings.”

Overhead lighting donated by CREE and desktop lamps designed by the LRC provided circadian-effective light during the two-day intervention. The study participants completed questionnaires inquiring about their sleep habits, stress, and subjective feelings of vitality and energy.  A pendant-mounted personal circadian-effective light measuring device called a Daysimeter, also designed by LRC researchers, was used to record participant-specific circadian stimulus (CS) exposures during the baseline and the intervention days.

As part of a long-term research effort exploring light’s effects on the circadian system, LRC researchers developed the CS metric, which is based on light’s ability to acutely suppress the production of melatonin. This metric has been applied in lab and field studies with the participation of diverse subject populations in settings ranging from middle schools to eldercare facilities, and even including U.S. Navy submarines.

The study’s results showed that the office workers received significantly higher amounts of CS while at work during the two intervention days compared to a baseline assessment day that preceded the intervention. The office workers’ self-reported sleepiness scores were significantly reduced during the intervention days and, as hypothesized, they also reported feeling significantly more vital, energetic, and alert during that time. What is particularly remarkable is that the four independent office buildings all showed the same trends. These results demonstrated that lighting systems delivering a high amount of circadian-effective light, especially early in the workday, can reduce sleepiness in office workers while also improving their mood and alertness.

The circadian system keeps people synchronized with the 24-hour day by regulating internal biological cycles that repeat themselves on a daily basis, such as digestion, the release of hormones, the control of core body temperature, and the timing of alertness and sleepiness. The patterns of light and dark received by our eyes are the major synchronizer of the circadian system’s master clock to our local position on Earth. Without the cues provided by these light–dark patterns, the numerous physiological and behavioral systems that help to ensure our wellbeing, if not survival, become asynchronous with each other and the environment. Research has associated such asynchrony with a number of mental and physical health problems, particularly including elevated risk for metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cancer. In addition to light’s synchronizing effect and of particular interest in this study, light can also have an acute alerting effect, similar to that provided by a cup of coffee, at any time of day or night.

Although this study did not measure evening light exposures, which can be just as important as daytime exposures because the circadian system is synchronized by the comprehensive 24-hour light–dark patterns received at the eye, these results nonetheless confirm findings from a wide range of previous LRC lab studies. Namely, that “high” light levels delivered to the eye during the day will (a) better align circadian rhythms to a day-active and night-sleeping pattern and (b) increase alertness during working hours. These promising empirical results from the field, backed up by more basic research, justify further investigations of the impact of retinal light exposure on the neurophysiology of the brain and, perhaps more importantly, a reexamination of current lighting standards that are based solely on office illumination for visibility and comfort.

For addinional information, please visit www.lrc.rpi.edu or contact the principal investigator Dr. Mariana Figueiro at figuem@rpi.edu

About the Lighting Research Center:

The Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is the world's leading center for lighting research and education. Established in 1988 by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the LRC has been pioneering research in solid-state lighting, light and health, transportation lighting and safety, and energy efficiency for nearly 30 years. LRC lighting scientists with multidisciplinary expertise in research, technology, design, and human factors, collaborate with a global network of leading manufacturers and government agencies, developing innovative lighting solutions for projects that range from the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to U.S. Navy submarines to hospital neonatal intensive-care units. LRC researchers conduct independent, third-party testing of lighting products in the LRC's state of the art photometric laboratories, the only university lighting laboratories accredited by the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP Lab Code: 200480-0). In 1990, the LRC became the first university research center to offer graduate degrees in lighting and today, offers a M.S. in lighting and a Ph.D. to educate future leaders in lighting. With 35 full-time faculty and staff, 15 graduate students, and a 30,000 sq. ft. laboratory space, the LRC is the largest university-based lighting research and education organization in the world.

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute:

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is America’s first technological research university. The university offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in engineering; the sciences; information technology and web sciences; architecture; management; and the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Rensselaer faculty advance research in a wide range of fields, with an emphasis on biotechnology, nanotechnology, computational science and engineering, data science, and the media arts and technology. The Institute has an established record of success in the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace, fulfilling its founding mission of applying science “to the common purposes of life.”

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