Decreased sensitivity of the circadian system to light in current, but not remitted depression

E.M. McGlashan, M.Y. Coleman, P. Vidafar, A.J.K. Phillips, S.W. Cain

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22 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Misalignment of circadian timing in patients with depression has commonly been reported, but the underlying mechanisms are not known. Individual differences in the sensitivity of the circadian system to light affect how the biological clock synchronizes with the external environment and can lead to misalignment of rhythms. We investigated the sensitivity of the circadian system to light in unmedicated (for >3 months) women with a current or previous diagnosis of major depression, and healthy controls. Methods: Baseline melatonin levels in dim light (<1 lux) were assessed, followed by melatonin levels in normal indoor lighting of 100 lux in order to determine melatonin suppression. Results: Patients currently experiencing a depressive episode showed significantly lower levels of melatonin suppression to light compared to remitted patients and controls, with large effect sizes. Remitted patients and controls showed similar suppression. Limitations: The relatively small sample, and lack of long-term, within subject assessments, make it difficult to determine the potential causal role of reduced light sensitivity in the development of circadian disruption. Conclusions: We conclude that hyposensitivity of the circadian system to light may contribute to circadian misalignment in patients with depression. Interventions that increase sensitivity to light or provide stronger light cues may assist in normalizing circadian clock function.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)386-392
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2019


  • Circadian disruption
  • Circadian rhythms
  • Individiual differences
  • Light sensitivity
  • Melatonin suppression
  • Synchronisation
  • Unipolar depression

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