The Role of Light Sensitivity and Intrinsic Circadian Period in Predicting Individual Circadian Timing

Julia E. Stone, Elise M. McGlashan, Nina Quin, Kayan Skinner, Jessica J Stephenson, Sean W. Cain, Andrew J. K. Phillips

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


There is large interindividual variability in circadian timing, which is underestimated by mathematical models of the circadian clock. Interindividual differences in timing have traditionally been modeled by changing the intrinsic circadian period, but recent findings reveal an additional potential source of variability: large interindividual differences in light sensitivity. Using an established model of the human circadian clock with real-world light recordings, we investigated whether changes in light sensitivity parameters or intrinsic circadian period could capture variability in circadian timing between and within individuals. Healthy participants (n = 12, aged 18-26 years) underwent continuous light monitoring for 3 weeks (Actiwatch Spectrum). Salivary dim-light melatonin onset (DLMO) was measured each week. Using the recorded light patterns, a sensitivity analysis for predicted DLMO times was performed, varying 3 model parameters within physiological ranges: (1) a parameter determining the steepness of the dose-response curve to light (p), (2) a parameter determining the shape of the phase-response curve to light (K), and (3) the intrinsic circadian period (tau). These parameters were then fitted to obtain optimal predictions of the three DLMO times for each individual. The sensitivity analysis showed that the range of variation in the average predicted DLMO times across participants was 0.65 h for p, 4.28 h for K, and 3.26 h for tau. The default model predicted the DLMO times with a mean absolute error of 1.02 h, whereas fitting all 3 parameters reduced the mean absolute error to 0.28 h. Fitting the parameters independently, we found mean absolute errors of 0.83 h for p, 0.53 h for K, and 0.42 h for tau. Fitting p and K together reduced the mean absolute error to 0.44 h. Light sensitivity parameters captured similar variability in phase compared with intrinsic circadian period, indicating they are viable targets for individualizing circadian phase predictions. Future prospective work is needed that uses measures of light sensitivity to validate this approach.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Biological Rhythms
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 16 Oct 2020


  • circadian phase
  • mathematical model
  • light sensitivity
  • intrinsic period
  • human
  • oscillator
  • parameter estimation
  • individual differences

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