Summary: A new study reveals exposure to dim light might impact memory and learning. Researchers report rodents exposed to dim lighting lost 30 percent of hippocampal capacity and performed poorly on spatial tasks they had previously experienced.
Source: Michigan State University.
Spending too much time in dimly lit rooms and offices may actually change the brain’s structure and hurt one’s ability to remember and learn, indicates groundbreaking research by Michigan State University neuroscientists.
The researchers studied the brains of Nile grass rats (which, like humans, are diurnal and sleep at night) after exposing them to dim and bright light for four weeks. The rodents exposed to dim light lost about 30 percent of capacity in the hippocampus, a critical brain region for learning and memory, and performed poorly on a spatial task they had trained on previously.
The rats exposed to bright light, on the other hand, showed significant improvement on the spatial task. Further, when the rodents that had been exposed to dim light were then exposed to bright light for four weeks (after a month-long break), their brain capacity – and performance on the task – recovered fully.
The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is the first to show that changes in environmental light, in a range normally experienced by humans, leads to structural changes in the brain. Americans, on average, spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“When we exposed the rats to dim light, mimicking the cloudy days of Midwestern winters or typical indoor lighting, the animals showed impairments in spatial learning,” said Antonio “Tony” Nunez, psychology professor and co-investigator on the study. “This is similar to when people can’t find their way back to their cars in a busy parking lot after spending a few hours in a shopping mall or movie theater.”
Nunez collaborated with Lily Yan, associate professor of psychology and principal investigator on the project, and Joel Soler, a doctoral graduate student in psychology. Soler is also lead author of a paper on the findings published in the journal Hippocampus.
Soler said sustained exposure to dim light led to significant reductions in a substance called brain derived neurotrophic factor – a peptide that helps maintain healthy connections and neurons in the hippocampus – and in dendritic spines, or the connections that allow neurons to “talk” to one another.
“Since there are fewer connections being made, this results in diminished learning and memory performance that is dependent upon the hippocampus,” Soler said. “In other words, dim lights are producing dimwits.”
Interestingly, light does not directly affect the hippocampus, meaning it acts first other sites within the brain after passing through the eyes. Yan said the research team is investigating one potential site in the rodents’ brains – a group of neurons in the hypothalamus that produce a peptide called orexin that’s known to influence a variety of brain functions. One of their major research questions: If orexin is given to the rats that are exposed to dim light, will their brains recover without being re-exposed to bright light?
The project could have implications for the elderly and people with glaucoma, retinal degeneration or cognitive impairments.
“For people with eye disease who don’t receive much light, can we directly manipulate this group of neurons in the brain, bypassing the eye, and provide them with the same benefits of bright light exposure?” Yan said. “Another possibility is improving the cognitive function in the aging population and those with neurological disorders. Can we help them recover from the impairment or prevent further decline?”
Source: Andy Henion – Michigan State University
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
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Original Research: Abstract in Hippocampus.
Light modulates hippocampal function and spatial learning in a diurnal rodent species: A study using male nile grass rat (Arvicanthis niloticus)
The effects of light on cognitive function have been well-documented in human studies, with brighter illumination improving cognitive performance in school children, healthy adults, and patients in early stages of dementia. However, the underlying neural mechanisms are not well understood. The present study examined how ambient light affects hippocampal function using the diurnal Nile grass rats (Arvicanthis niloticus) as the animal model. Grass rats were housed in either a 12:12 h bright light–dark (brLD, 1,000 lux) or dim light-dark (dimLD, 50 lux) cycle. After 4 weeks, the dimLD group showed impaired spatial memory in the Morris Water Maze (MWM) task. The impairment in their MWM performance were reversed when the dimLD group were transferred to the brLD condition for another 4 weeks. The results suggest that lighting conditions influence cognitive function of grass rats in a way similar to that observed in humans, such that bright light is beneficial over dim light for cognitive performance. In addition to the behavioral changes, grass rats in the dimLD condition exhibited reduced expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the hippocampus, most notably in the CA1 subregion. There was also a reduction in dendritic spine density in CA1 apical dendrites in dimLD as compared to the brLD group, and the reduction was mostly in the number of mushroom and stubby spines. When dimLD animals were transferred to the brLD condition for 4 weeks, the hippocampal BDNF and dendritic spine density significantly increased. The results illustrate that not only does light intensity affect cognitive performance, but that it also impacts hippocampal structural plasticity. These studies serve as a starting point to further understand how ambient light modulates neuronal and cognitive functions in diurnal species. A mechanistic understanding of the effects of light on cognition can help to identify risk factors for cognitive decline and contribute to the development of more effective prevention and treatment of cognitive impairment in clinical populations.