Lighting the International Space Station

Astronauts at the International Space Station experience 16 sunrises and sunsets a day. To combat chronic insomnia, NASA has installed special lightbulbs. Now, these bulbs are available to consumers. Fred Maxik, founder of the Lighting Science Group joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss lighting science.


Astronauts at the International Space Station experience 16 sunrises and sunsets a day.

To combat chronic insomnia, NASA has installed special light bulbs.

Now these bulbs are available to consumers.

Fred Maxik, founder of the Lighting Science Group, joins me now.

They seem like normal bulbs in normal lamps.

What's so different about them?

What's different about them is how we build up the spectrum inside them.

It's just not the white light that came off an incandescent bulb.

It's not the white light that came off a CFL bulb anymore.

Now it's a bulb that's being built using LED solid-state devices, and we're actually able to custom tailor a spectrum for a specific biological effect.

So the effects, for example, are somebody who's tired and travels a lot and wants to sleep.

How much of an impact is that last light bulb that we see during the day impacting our sleep?

Well, a great deal, actually.

We have these receptors in our eyes, these ganglion receptors, and these receptors are non-visual.

And if you stimulate them with typical light before you go to bed, the latency effect on getting a good night's sleep could be 90 minutes to 2 hours in preventing you from going to a deep sleep and preventing you from secreting melatonin in the evening.

So it's a pretty significant effect if you have the wrong light before you go to bed.

What about the light that comes out of our TVs?

A lot of people watch TV before they go to bed.

And we're developing new apps and new methodologies around it because it's actually a fairly narrow spectrum of light that's causing the problem.

It's this bluish, cyanish peak at about 480 nanometers that's creating this non-visual stimulation that's telling our bodies to wake up.

So there are apps now on phones, on screens to try to change the color, and they kind of dim after sunset and they keep dimming throughout the night.

Do those work?

They help. They help.

They're a partial solution.

The best solution is just shut everything off, right?

We evolved as diurnal animals.

We're used to daylight and nighttime, and that's what resets our clock every day.

It's what helps our body heal at night.

But if you have to have something on, let's define the right type of light to use to put on so it doesn't disrupt our natural function or let's create these apps that dim or sort of deteriorate or diminish the light that'll cause the most harm.

The science behind this was tested with these lab rats that are stuck in a space station.

That's where it started.

A lot of the work here came out work we've done with NASA over the years.

And what we've found is we could actually take a blood sample from a person in realtime, turn on a light, and actually watch hormones change.

Where do you see that progressing to?

If you know this much now, in five years out, are we gonna see a different kind of light bulb everywhere around us that is cued into these?

We're coming of an age of this wonderful digital convergence, right?

So light and life are converging, and we're beginning to understand all these new ways we can use light to help the body heal, to help cells heal, to help us sleep better, to help our body just manifest all these different functions.

And we've tracked some of these photoreceptors, and scientists out there have been doing wonderful work there.

But there's a lot to still be discovered, and it's being discovered almost on a yearly basis now.

You know, I've heard about, for example, a certain color of light that helps you get to sleep, as you said.

I've heard about a certain kind of light that helps people who are depressed or with seasonal affective disorder.

They sit in front of a light box, right?

So, you know, can you kind of rattle off maybe in a list for me different kinds of lights and the effects that they have on us?

Especially when you said healing.

I never thought about that.

The first one is obviously pre-sleep.

We're already working on that, and that is a warmer white spectrum that is taking out this sort of blue area, this 480-nanometer peaked area, that is causing this disruption to your normal sleep.

Then there's another light that will help awake alertness, help you study, help you retain things, and has yet a different spectrum in it, more of a blue-enhanced spectrum with a 480 peak but still looks like a very, very natural white if it's done well.

There are a lot of researchers now doing work on how we create lights that will help our body heal in ways that people looking at hormonal-based diseases, some of the cancers -- breast cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer -- that seem to have triggers where these hormones were disrupting with light or affecting with light.

And therefore the treatment of those cancers and the possible delay of the onset of those or the growth of those can well be found to be triggered by these lights in the future.

Fred Maxik, this is fascinating stuff.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thanks so much.