It has long been proven that daylight has a positive influence on physical and mental health. Nevertheless, this knowledge is still little used in everyday life and in the clinic. The "Integrative Human Circadian Daylight Platform" aims to change this over the next few years. The interdisciplinary project under Basel leadership is supported by the Velux Foundation with more than two million Swiss francs.
’Many older people, even healthy ones, suffer from poor sleep quality,’ says Mirjam Münch. The sleep researcher and chronobiologist suspects that a lack of daylight contributes to the problem. In a study that is just starting, she wants to investigate whether daylight in combination with other low-threshold measures can sustainably improve sleep quality.
This study is just one example of the many activities of the ’Integrative Human Circadian Daylight Platform’ iHCDP. The project was launched last September and is led by Christian Cajochen, Director of the Center for Chronobiology, at the University Psychiatric Clinics, Basel. Funding of over two million Swiss francs for the next four years is provided by the Velux Foundation Switzerland.
The aim of the platform is to promote daylighting research - both through its own research projects and through the interdisciplinary networking of scientists with the help of a data hub and cooperation with national and international partners.
In addition, daylight research is to be linked with the fields of aging research and ophthalmology, and the public is also to gain better access to and benefit from the findings of this research. ’What is new about our platform is that it connects experts from very different levels,’ says program coordinator Dr. Miriam Ries. The platform is divided into three modules, each dedicated to basic research, application-oriented research and the development of new therapies.
The right lighting indoors, too
Dr. Mirjam Münch heads the module that aims to promote the implementation of scientific findings from daylight research in the everyday environment: For example, her study on the sleep quality of elderly people could help architects better consider the influence of daylight when building homes for the elderly. It is also conceivable that guidelines for optimal lighting design in public buildings could be derived from it. ’We assume that long-term implementation of such approaches can improve the health of more than just older people in general,’ she says.
However, the exact biological mechanisms behind the positive effects of daylight are not yet fully understood. Therefore, a second module of the platform is concerned with researching the physiological principles. According to current knowledge, parts of daylight that are invisible to us trigger signals on the retina of the eyes, which are then transmitted to the brain. This then sets the pace for the internal clock. The head of this module is Prof. Manuel Spitschan at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen and at the Technical University of Munich.
Healing through light
Finally, the third module aims to advance the development of light-based therapies. ’Light information from the environment is also transmitted to the higher-level biological clock in the hypothalamus via specialized cells in the retina of the eye,’ says Münch.
’Nowadays, we are often exposed only to electric lighting, which makes it difficult for biological clocks to distinguish day from night, in part because there is too little light during the day and too much light in the evening.’ Combined with other factors that interfere with the synchronization of the circadian day/night rhythm, this can increase the risk of numerous diseases - from diabetes and cardiovascular disease to sleep disorders and depression - in the longer term.
To test innovative treatments with a chronotherapeutic approach, Dr. Corrado Garbazza will soon establish a ’Circadian Health Clinic’ at the Center for Chronobiology. The potential of this approach is illustrated by a recently published study from his research group: half-hour light therapy for six weeks significantly reduced the risk of pregnancy depression.
The platform aims to keep the general public informed about the latest findings in daylight research at various events and via digital formats. In this way, the public should also become more aware of how important light exposure is for well-being. ’We want to share our results with the general population as much as possible,’ Münch says. ’Science should not hide in its ivory tower.’