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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Preliminary evidence that both blue and red light can induce alertness at night

Mariana G Figueiro*, Andrew Bierman, Barbara Plitnick and Mark S Rea

Author affiliations

Lighting Research Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Neuroscience 2009, 10:105  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-10-105

Published: 27 August 2009



A variety of studies have demonstrated that retinal light exposure can increase alertness at night. It is now well accepted that the circadian system is maximally sensitive to short-wavelength (blue) light and is quite insensitive to long-wavelength (red) light. Retinal exposures to blue light at night have been recently shown to impact alertness, implicating participation by the circadian system. The present experiment was conducted to look at the impact of both blue and red light at two different levels on nocturnal alertness. Visually effective but moderate levels of red light are ineffective for stimulating the circadian system. If it were shown that a moderate level of red light impacts alertness, it would have had to occur via a pathway other than through the circadian system.


Fourteen subjects participated in a within-subject two-night study, where each participant was exposed to four experimental lighting conditions. Each night each subject was presented a high (40 lx at the cornea) and a low (10 lx at the cornea) diffuse light exposure condition of the same spectrum (blue, λmax = 470 nm, or red, λmax = 630 nm). The presentation order of the light levels was counterbalanced across sessions for a given subject; light spectra were counterbalanced across subjects within sessions. Prior to each lighting condition, subjects remained in the dark (< 1 lx at the cornea) for 60 minutes. Electroencephalogram (EEG) measurements, electrocardiogram (ECG), psychomotor vigilance tests (PVT), self-reports of sleepiness, and saliva samples for melatonin assays were collected at the end of each dark and light periods.


Exposures to red and to blue light resulted in increased beta and reduced alpha power relative to preceding dark conditions. Exposures to high, but not low, levels of red and of blue light significantly increased heart rate relative to the dark condition. Performance and sleepiness ratings were not strongly affected by the lighting conditions. Only the higher level of blue light resulted in a reduction in melatonin levels relative to the other lighting conditions.


These results support previous findings that alertness may be mediated by the circadian system, but it does not seem to be the only light-sensitive pathway that can affect alertness at night.