Can a new research light-up profits and public interest?
By Fred Oberkircher, IALD, IESNA, LC

In today’s corporate world of “next quarter” mentality, it’s easy to see how it could happen. The pressure to bring product to the marketplace and to maximize profits for the benefit of shareholders has made it difficult to justify the cost of research. However, this article is not intended to be a call for a rededication to the basics of lighting research, Instead, it will focus on one specific area where I believe research can simultaneously serve the dual interests of both the public and profit.

New Light for Your Life: For basically 100 years, light has been defined as radiant energy that affects the human visual system. And, why not? All the best research in the world detailed the mechanisms by which rods and cones – the only photoreceptors – received and passed along signals to the brain. The entire lighting industry reaffirmed this research by producing ever more sophisticated products to optimize the process by which light was introduced to those photoreceptors. All the questions concerning vision having been answered, the remaining issues were increasingly devoted to maximizing the profit potential of lighting products.

But over approximately the last four years a quiet revolution has been underway. It started as a series of clarifications concerning the spectral characteristics of light used in SAD (Seasonally Affective Disorder) treatments, was expanded by groundbreaking research first published in Science in 2002, and became the topic of an international conference in 2004. This research suggested that light not only had new and broad based physiological implications, in addition, this process began through a photoreceptor that was neither a rod nor a cone. Light was still radiant energy, however it now had an additional pathway with a different spectral distribution, and it affected, not the visual system, but the human hormonal system. The revolution was a new field of light – non-visual effects.

A Short Explanation: Several years ago, the discovery that SAD was a psychological disorder that could be treated with light seemed amazing – light as cure. However, as more research was conducted it was found that blue light was more effective than white light. Why? The first indication of an answer was when, in 2002, researchers discovered that mice without rods or cones could still maintain a day/night (circadian) cycle. Following a burst of research energy, it was further found that the eye of mammals – including humans – had a third photoreceptor that sent its signals, not to the vision part of the brain, but to the hormonal center, the pineal gland. And finally, this new receptor was most sensitive to – you guessed it – blue light!

Why Haven’t I Heard?: Reaction to this groundbreaking research? No major headlines, and no major industry commitment. Why? There are three answers. The first, is that the research was very scientifically detailed – conditions such as dilated pupils and extended staring at a specific light source do not typically occur outside of the laboratory. The second is that environmental conditions have historically been difficult to quantify – to what extent is the level of a specific hormone in an environmental setting due to the spectral distribution of the light and what to other circumstances? The third is that while the photometry for visual light has been almost 100 years in development, there is currently no photometry for non-visual effects – meaning that there is no consensus on how to measure the affects that may be taking place. Clearly, a gap exists between the current state of the research and the human health implications of non-visual effects.

Call for Action: While the immediate path may not be clear, I strongly believe that we must invest in knowledge and research now! Consider that sleep disruption is the number one issue for the elderly. Consider that sleeping aids are the number one prescription medication sold today. Then consider that both of these are issues for which circadian rhythm/light – a non-visual effect – have significant impact. And that’s just for starters. Research has suggested that:

• a significant percentage of the working population of northern cities may be falling asleep at work during those long dark winter days – not enough of the light necessary for that new photoreceptor.

• third shift female workers are more likely to develop certain kinds of cancer – the wrong kind of light.

• the sleep irregularities common with certain forms of dementia may be, in part due to the lighting – light at the wrong time.

Its time for the lighting industry to come together with the researchers and create a clear plan of action that includes research, measurement, and application. I believe the results will have major positive effects for both the public and profit.