Electric lighting has fundamentally altered how the human circadian clock synchronizes to the day/night cycle. Exposure to light after dusk is pervasive in the modern world. We examined group-level sensitivity of the circadian system to evening light and the degree to which sensitivity varies between individuals. We found that, on average, humans are highly sensitive to evening light. Specifically, 50% suppression of melatonin occurred at less than 30 lux, which is comparable to or lower than typical indoor lighting used at night, as well as light produced by electronic devices. Significantly, there was a greater than 50-fold difference in sensitivity to evening light across individuals. Interindividual differences in light sensitivity may explain differential vulnerability to circadian disruption and subsequent impact on human health.Abstract
Before the invention of electric lighting, humans were primarily exposed to intense (>300 lux) or dim (less than 30 lux) environmental light—stimuli at extreme ends of the circadian system’s dose–response curve to light. Today, humans spend hours per day exposed to intermediate light intensities (30–300 lux), particularly in the evening. Interindividual differences in sensitivity to evening light in this intensity range could therefore represent a source of vulnerability to circadian disruption by modern lighting. We characterized individual-level dose–response curves to light-induced melatonin suppression using a within-subjects protocol. Fifty-five participants (aged 18–30) were exposed to a dim control (less than 1 lux) and a range of experimental light levels (10–2,000 lux for 5 h) in the evening. Melatonin suppression was determined for each light level, and the effective dose for 50% suppression (ED50) was computed at individual and group levels. The group-level fitted ED50 was 24.60 lux, indicating that the circadian system is highly sensitive to evening light at typical indoor levels. Light intensities of 10, 30, and 50 lux resulted in later apparent melatonin onsets by 22, 77, and 109 min, respectively. Individual-level ED50 values ranged by over an order of magnitude (6 lux in the most sensitive individual, 350 lux in the least sensitive individual), with a 26% coefficient of variation. These findings demonstrate that the same evening-light environment is registered by the circadian system very differently between individuals. This interindividual variability may be an important factor for determining the circadian clock’s role in human health and disease.