Indoor lights make us sick: this technology could fix it

have you ever Enjoyed the beauty of an early morning sunrise or sunset? Well, there’s more to Bob Ross’ feel-good kaleidoscope of colors than meets the eye: This soothing sight is actually meant to orient our body clocks. Sunlight evolves regularly, changing color from reddish white in the morning to bluish white during the day and back to reddish at night. These changes signal the body to produce different hormones, such as the sleep hormone melatonin, to coax you to lie down at night or perform other necessary bodily functions.

Because we humans stay home quite often (hello, pandemic!), it’s crucial to ensure our 24-hour sleep-wake patterns, or circadian rhythms, stay on point. That’s why researchers are embracing smart lighting: This technology typically uses LEDs that alternate between different wavelengths of light. Such adjustments aim to help regulate our circadian rhythms in a similar way to the sun. Now scientists have dipped their toes into the quantum realm to bring the great outdoors into your home.

According to a recent article published in the journal nature communicationsResearchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a technology that increases the efficiency and color saturation of a standard LED using quantum dots or nano-sized synthetic crystals that can carry electrons. Unlike your standard LED that produces white light through three primary colors (red, green, and blue), QD-LEDs expand that limited palette to produce a more dynamic intelligent lighting system that more closely matches color temperatures. constantly changing daylight. With a little more tweaking, this kind of innovation can be useful for keeping our circadian rhythms in check when we’re stuck indoors.

“This is a world first: a fully optimized high-performance quantum dot-based smart white lighting system,” Jong Min Kim, co-author of the new paper and professor of electrical engineering at the University of Cambridge, said in a press release. . “This is the first milestone towards fully exploiting quantum dot-based smart white lighting for everyday applications.”

Quantum dot technology is commonly used to illuminate LCD screens and provide a precise range of colors.ullstein bild Dtl./ullstein bild/Getty Images

What did you do – Quantum dots, which are essentially semiconductors consisting of just a pinch of atoms, have been in development for the past 40 years and are typically used to create LCD displays with a relatively brighter and more accurate color gamut compared to LED technology. Independent. They work like this: when a quantum dot receives a hit of energy, be it from a laser beam, an electric or magnetic field, its electrons consume this energy and emit light. The final color you get is determined by how small the dot is, as well as the material it’s made from.

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Kim and his team took quantum dots between 3 and 30 nanometers in diameter and used machine learning to determine the optimal design that would generate the best spectrum and color temperatures. To test their smart lighting system, the team devised a device with a color temperature range of 2,243 kelvins (which mimics the red hues of morning) to 9,207 kelvins (the color you would feel in the midday sun). This QD-LED device vastly dwarfed the standard LED, which on average can only reach a range of 2,200 to 6,500 Kelvin.

Why does it matter? Light — and the absence of it — drives our circadian rhythms, says Mariana Figueiro, director of the Mount Sinai Center for Light and Health Research in New York City, which studies the impact of light on human health.

Figueiro explains that our biological clocks normally continue to tick regardless of our surroundings, running in intervals that last a little over 24 hours. But “what you need is that daily light/dark exposure that will reset your clock and keep it in sync with that 24-hour cycle.”

To relay that information, the body relies on a specialized group of neurons called intrinsically sensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells contain melanopsin, a photopigment whose activity depends on the amount of light it is exposed to.

When light enters the eyeball and hits the retina, where the ipRGCs cool down, it flips a switch that tells your brain, and your biological clock, whether it’s day or night. (In blind people where the retina is intact, their brains still receive information about light changes, but they may not be aware that these changes are happening.)

When light enters the eyeball and hits the retina, it flips a switch that tells your brain, and your biological clock, whether it’s day or night.Giovanni Bortolani/Moment/Getty Images

Because many hormones in the body are released on a tight schedule, any disturbance to our circadian rhythms effectively alters a hormone’s ETA, damaging physical and mental health. Melatonin is a prime example that many might be familiar with, but Figueiro says that hormones like cortisol (the stress hormone), ghrelin (the hunger hormone), and leptin (a hormone that regulates fat storage and energy levels) are driven by circadian rhythms to varying degrees.

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If these hormones are dysfunctional for too long, people can develop chronic inflammation that leads to conditions like obesity, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer.

On top of that, the precise color of the light has a significant impact. The wavelengths that result in blue light are beneficial during the day because they help with wakefulness, memory, cognition, and improve mood. But at night, studies have found that exposure to blue light can drastically reduce melatonin levels (which are stimulated by red light at night), causing late-night screen users to not get enough sleep.

Delving into the details – While QD-LED technology seems intriguing, Figueiro says, one important quality for human health is missing from the study equation: light intensity.

Artificial lights, Figueiro explains, can’t compete with the level of brightness we experience outside on a sunny day, which has a luminous intensity (or lux) of 50,000 to 100,000 compared to 300 to 500 lux indoors. .

“Everyone talks about mimicking the spectrum of daylight; nothing will mimic or match the amount of light you get outdoors,” she says. “People obsess over the spectrum because they can manipulate and change it.” But unless you change the light intensity at the same time, don’t expect any miraculous benefits.

In addition to the correct color and intensity, the direction from which light strikes our eyes is also important for circadian biology.Victoria Jones – Pennsylvania Images/Pennsylvania Images/Getty Images

In addition to the correct color and intensity, the direction from which light strikes our eyes is also important for circadian biology, says Constantin-Cosmin Ticleanu, a light researcher at the Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources at University CollegeLondon.

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“The ipRGCs in the retina are not equally distributed in the retina,” he explains to Reverse. “They are more concentrated in the lower part of the retina, which is not surprising because if you think about the natural light conditions in the sky… [it’s typical] look up horizontally in front of us.”

Studies have shown that light aimed at our eyes vertically, not horizontally, at about 250 lux during the day is recommended. Since QD-LEDs are still a proof of concept, it’s still hard to judge the directionality aspect. Hopefully that factor will be incorporated into future lighting fixtures as the technology continues to evolve.

Whats Next – “The ability to better reproduce daylight through its dynamically varying color spectrum in a single light is what we’re after,” Gehan Amaratunga, a professor of engineering at the University of Cambridge who also co-led the study, said in a news release. research. “We achieved this in a new way by using quantum dots. This research paves the way for a wide variety of new human-sensitive lighting environments.”

QD-LEDs have a long way to go before they can deliver on that brilliant promise, but here’s an illuminating first step of many steps to come.

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