Meet the CNS Grantee: Dr. Maria Korman

February 27, 2022
Meet the CNS Grantee: Dr. Maria Korman

With little exposure to daytime sunlight, and nights brightened by screens and indoor and outdoor lighting, our modern lifestyle has thrown us out of sync with the natural patterns of brightness and darkness that are key to mental and physical wellbeing.

Now, CNS grantees, a neurobiologist, Maria Korman and an occupational therapist Rinatia Maaravi-Hesseg from Ariel University’s occupational therapy department are trying to compensate for indoor lifestyle – induced problems with sleep and psychological wellbeing by using lighting solutions that mimic the natural sunrise.

Can such interventions really make a significant difference? We take you behind the scenes of one project that proves they can.

For decades, our modern lifestyles have been keeping us indoors, making us heavily dependent on artificial light. This has thrown our bodies out of sync with the natural cycles of light and darkness that regulate the body’s internal clock, mood, and cognitive function, and are key to basic physiological processes like regulation of body temperature, heart rate, and metabolism. The pandemic, which has led to spending even more time indoors, has only exacerbated this issue, reducing people’s exposure to natural light by 58% during lockdowns. Ultimately, this disconnect with the natural light cycle has resulted in negative psychological and physiological effects.

So when a grant proposal from doctors Maria Korman and Rinatia Maaravi-Hesseg to research how human-centric light technology that mimics sunrise can benefit wellbeing, landed on our doorstep, we knew it was something important that we wanted to fund. The physiological effects of light is an understudied area of science that could have a significant impact on people’s health and mental wellbeing. And there is also a vast commercial potential for such life-changing indoor lighting solutions. In fact, solutions for  regulating circadian rhythm in an era of indoor-living  and artificial light is a top priority for the wellness tech sector.

“We are always racing against the clock, and feel there is a lack of time, and I believe this is related to the fact that modern society does not rely on natural time cues, especially, changes in light” says Korman, a neurobiologist at Ariel University. “This really hurts our life and our health because under ever-present artificial light we have an illusion of everlasting daytime, which is, of course, devoted to activity. Ultimately, this is reducing our chance to rest and restore. Our goal is to find a smart way out of this race against time using technology to change our light environment. Light is extremely critical to our health, and mental and physical wellbeing.”

Bright nights are not good for us

Differing levels of light have long been a key part of human life. Before the advent of electricity, the timing of the sunrise and sunset determined people’s schedules, including when they slept, worked, socialized and ate. Even when fire, and fuels like gas, emerged to create light at night, these were used in limited quantities due high costs, meaning that nights were still dark, for the most part. Early artificial light sources also had a low blue light component, which is known to promote wakefulness.

“Only in modern times did we become addicted to artificial light,” Korman says, explaining that we constantly desire more and more light. “It’s like sugar, the more you have the more you want.” The omnipresent indoor lighting after sunset, including  blue light from LEDs, phone and computer screens, combined with outdoor light from buildings, cars, street lamps and other sources, make nights as bright–or maybe even brighter (think about stadium or stage lighting) –than days.

We essentially have gloomy days with little exposure to sunlight, and overly bright nights. This leads to delayed sleep, lower sleep quality and shortened sleep, and, ultimately, to a multitude of negative health effects, including an increase in rates of depression. These effects are explained by the fact that light-at-night causes the body to produce less melatonin and also directly modulates the activity in brain areas that keep our body clock in sync with the environment.

Naturally Resetting Our Internal Clocks

A possible solution to the negative effects of our indoor lifestyle and resulting misalignment with the natural time, is to expose people to bright artificial light during the morning hours, mimicking the sensation of the natural gradual increase in brightness that starts at sunrise, before your alarm clock rings. Observational studies have found that intense light in the morning is connected to better sleep and lower rates of depression. Korman and Maaravi-Hesseg, a neurobiologist and occupational therapist who also works at Ariel University, will use the grant to expand on previous research, which found that a bedside lamp mimicking the intensity of outdoor light at different times of day, including sunset, darkness, and sunrise, helped people improve their schedules, energy levels and moods.  

Indoor light that echoes the course of natural outdoor light throughout the day is part of what Korman calls “the four D’s that lead to improved sleep and wellbeing”: Those include daylight, dim light in the afternoon and evening, a digital diet, or limiting our use of screens at night, and exposure to complete darkness while sleeping.

Korman and Maaravi-Hesseg’s research is especially promising not only because it is rooted in scientific evidence, but also because it is examining solutions that are simple to use. Such unobtrusive interventions like special lamps can easily be used at home and work, in the background; they can be preprogrammed and adjusted to one’s schedules and they don’t require attention. This makes the approach different from existing solutions that require wearing cumbersome blue-light blocking glasses, following the directions of an app or spending large amounts of time sitting under specialized lights.

“We want to improve people’s daily lives without causing inconvenience,” says Maaravi-Hesseg.

Advancing our understanding of how light affects us

Their continuing research will also lead to more scientific understanding of the differences between natural and artificial light, and how light affects health and wellbeing.  Studying these relatively neglected aspects of light is important to us at CNS, and for the general advancement of science and technology to help us improve our wellbeing.

Traditionally, most study of light has been related to how it helps us see. But the non-visual aspects of light are clearly critical to human functioning, both psychologically and psychologically. This new research will help clarify our bodies’ relationship with ambient light and develop seamless technological ways to control our light environment in a way that benefits our health and wellbeing. Hopefully, this will light the path out of a lifestyle that so often feels hyperactive, and exhausting; a lifestyle without enough sleep and rest.