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Ohio State study finds blue, white lighting cause depression

Depression may be a side effect of the lighting students are around as they burn the midnight oil, according to a new study.

Ohio State professor of neuroscience and psychology Randy Nelson co-authored a study that used nocturnal hamsters to test the effect of various lights on mood. The hamsters were put through a series of night tests measuring their endurance and energy after they were exposed to dim white, dim blue, dim red and no light. He found hamsters tended to express depression-like symptoms, including drinking less sugar water, usually a treat for hamsters, when exposed to blue and white light, less so by red light and were most normal when they were not exposed to light at night.

Nelson said the results can be applied to humans, dismissing the idea of void findings because he studied nocturnal hamsters.

“Humans that work the night shift are more prone to depression than day shift workers,” Nelson said in an email. “We have also conducted similar studies in grass rats, which are diurnal (active during the day) as humans (are), and we saw similar results.”

Furthermore, Nelson found sleep deprivation, unlike nighttime light exposure, cannot fully explain the results.

“We think that many of the mood disorders attributed to sleep disruption actually affect circadian (biological processes occurring on a 24-hour cycle) organization which causes both sleep disturbances and mood disorders,” he said. “The dim light at night affected the underlying biological clock that drives both sleep and integration of mood.”

At present, OSU officials said they are reluctant to take any action.

Currently, every OSU building must follow a list of university-developed design standards, which require lighting to meet the needs of students, Lisa Patton-Glinski, assistant director for planning and administration for University Libraries, said.

“Lighting in our spaces must be installed in a fashion that appropriately serves the needs of people who are studying, utilizing our print collection, working on computers and moving about the building,” Patton-Glinski said.

Some OSU officials said there is also a safety concern underlining their hesitation to throwing out the university’s lighting policy.

“I don’t know that it’s entirely appropriate to do away with common lighting in the common areas since lighting serves a number of functions including safety and security,” said Dave Isaacs, Student Life spokesman. He added that he’s interested in more research and its “long-range implications.”

Some students are also hesitant to completely do away with bright white lighting in favor of dim red lights.

Miracle McGowan works in the 18th Avenue Library and said the study is definitely worthy of further research, as she said she can see how there could be a potential crime issue.

“As far as the libraries, I haven’t seen much crime there, but it’s a lot of lighting … maybe that is why,” said the third-year in criminology.

Other students said the study had the potential to change the way people live.

“Maybe that will help changing people’s minds about technology and what lights we use,” said Jordan Boone, a second-year in journalism.

People can avoid the threat of depression by using red light at night or by avoiding late night work, according to the study.

Nelson said he has taken steps toward healthier living at home by not submitting himself to blue or white light during the night.

“I don’t watch TV at night,” he said, and added that he has set his e-reader to have a red background instead of white.

The study, co-authored by Nelson and former OSU graduate student Tracy Bedrosian, was published in the Aug. 7 Journal of Neuroscience.

2 comments

  1. Humans are not nocturnal creatures so, regardless of what this guy believes, his results are not applicable. During the day, the sky itself is either blue or white light (clouds). Is he implying that we get depressed by going outside into the daylight?

  2. Where’s a DOI or link to the article? How were the intensity of different colors matched? Same photonic power or same luminous flux or same luminous intensity? Do we have an estimation of how well does a hamster’s spectral sensitivity curve match humans’? Were the colored light sources monochromatic or broad-band?

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