New Light Technology Solves Naptime Problems for Astronauts

If you think getting a good night’s sleep on Earth is tough imagine trying to fall asleep with a sunrise occurring nearly every 90 minutes. While it may seem counter-intuitive, these are the conditions under which our astronauts must live and work while in orbit. This can alter their internal clocks making it difficult to get adequate shuteye, and more importantly, remain alert to their responsibilities. In the space station, the illumination is often approximately 100 lux and usually less than 500 lux; there is insufficient light to maintain appropriate circadian rhythms.

The biological reason for this “space insomnia” is that the body’s sleep functions are triggered by a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is produced by the body when the eye detects darkness. Astronauts typically see 15 or 16 sunrises daily throughout their sleeping period. In the case of our intrepid space travelers, this overabundance of light disrupts their melatonin production, resulting in a restless sleep for the crew members on the International Space Station (ISS).

Photobiologists have come up with a solution to assist in this issue. After recreating the ISS sleeping quarters, researchers installed color and brightness adjustable LEDs. Volunteers were brought to take a “light-bath” as they changed the colors of the LEDs. As expected, the lower the light, the more melatonin in the volunteers, which increases the chances of falling and staying asleep.

These studies also showed which colored light would be best for sleeping and keeping the astronauts’ alert. Red-shifted light allowed volunteers to fall asleep while bluish light would wake them up. After NASA completes additional testing on whether this kind of sleep is deep enough to be restful, they plan to have LED color and brightness adjusted lighting installed in the actual crew quarters of the ISS.

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Photo credit: Wired

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