NSF funds research on bio-informed ‘smart lights’

Asleep in class
Shut Eye
Many middle and high school students are sleep-deprived. Tuning interior lighting systems to accommodate human circadian rhythms could help, especially for schools that cannot change early starting times.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A new collaboration between sleep researchers and engineers at Brown University, funded by the National Science Foundation, may be the first step toward "smart lighting" that tunes the interior environment — the wavelength, intensity, direction, and other factors of artificial light — to accommodate human biological rhythms of sleep and wakefulness.

A multidisciplinary team of Brown researchers has received an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to engineer new lighting systems to enhance students' biological adjustments to the school day and to help them stay alert and focused at school.

"We know that indoor lighting influences the human circadian rhythms and thus the cycle of sleep and wakefulness," said Jimmy Xu, the Charles C. Tillinghast Jr. University Professor of Engineering and professor of physics. "LED technology is capable of providing light of different wavelengths, intensities, and directions. We want understand how those attributes influence circadian rhythms and ultimately develop 'prescription' lighting for schools that helps keep students awake in the classroom and helps them get to sleep at night."

The work will be a joint effort between Xu's lab in the School of Engineering and the lab of Mary Carskadon from the Bradley Hospital and the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior in the Alpert Medical School.

Lack of sleep is a significant problem for middle and high school students, according to Carskadon, who has studied the neurobiology of sleep for years. Her research has shown that teenagers have a natural biological tendency to stay up later than younger children and adults. When combined with early school start times, it's a recipe for sleep deprivation.

"We know that many students are short on sleep," Carskadon said. "This sleep deprivation affects their school performance and their moods, and when sleep and school start times are out of sync, the result is a condition similar to narcolepsy. Although some districts have managed to set the school bell later, most school systems can't easily change their early start times, so we're hoping this project might present a new avenue to address this problem."

The research will begin with studies in the Sleep Labs of Brown University and Bradley Hospital to determine how different attributes of light influence melatonin, a hormone that mediates the circadian cycle. Engineers in Xu's lab will then work to create sensors, algorithms, and wireless control systems to maximize beneficial lighting attributes in a pilot system. The system will be field-tested in a local school in cooperation with school administrators, teachers, parents, and students.

The researchers will work with Digital Lumens, a Boston-based company led by Thomas Pincince, a Brown alumnus. The company designs intelligent lighting systems that combine LED technology with networking and software to maximize energy efficiency. The team hopes to use the same techniques that make smart lighting systems more efficient to design systems more in tune with human biology.

"We see it as the next level of smart lighting," Xu said. "We're looking forward to getting started on this unique and truly interdisciplinary project."

The funding will be allocated over the next three years.

By Kevin Stacey