Figueiro has demonstrated that short-wavelength (blue) and long-wavelength (red) light increases alertness and performance at night.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have awarded $2.2 million to Rensselaer Professor Mariana Figueiro, Light and Health Program Director at the Lighting Research Center (LRC), to support research that could benefit the more than 7 million Americans working rotating or night-shift schedules. The four-year R01 grant from NIOSH/CDC will focus on lighting interventions to reduce circadian disruption in shift workers.

Mariana Figuerio

Mariana Figueiro, LRC
light and health program

In the U.S. and Europe, 15 to 20 percent of all full-time wage and salary workers work alternative shifts. Night-shift work, especially prevalent among nurses and other health-care workers, requires inverting the activity-rest cycle. As a result, shift workers are more likely to experience sleepiness and insomnia, along with decreased productivity, impaired safety, diminished quality of life, and adverse health effects. Light can help night- and rotating-shift workers to stay awake, in part due to suppression of melatonin, but melatonin suppression and the resulting circadian disruption has been linked to increased risk for metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.

Figueiro has demonstrated in laboratory studies that short-wavelength (blue) and long-wavelength (red) light increases alertness and performance at night, although only blue light significantly suppresses melatonin, suggesting that melatonin suppression is not required to promote nighttime alertness and improve performance. The research funded by this most recent R01 grant will field test these laboratory results in a health-care setting, testing the use of a novel lighting intervention utilizing red light to increase alertness and improve performance in health-care shift workers without disrupting their natural melatonin production. If shown effective, non-pharmacological treatments to reduce errors in hospital settings and improve quality of life can be applied to help health care workers cope with irregular nighttime work schedules without disrupting their circadian rhythms.

Figueiro is also the principal investigator for two other multi-year R01 grants from the National Institute on Aging aimed at understanding how light can improve sleep in older adults, including those with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. The LRC is the world’s leading university-based research and education organization devoted to lighting—from technologies to applications and energy use, from design to health and vision.