CURF Introduction: Does nighttime light exposure affect mood?

Hi everyone! My name is Anjali Shah, and I am a sophomore majoring in psychology and minoring in chemistry and neuroscience on the premed track. I am a recipient of the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship for this spring 2022 semester. I was awarded this fellowship for my research in the Sleep, Affective, Neuroscience, and Development (SAND) Lab at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, under my mentor Dr. Adriane Soehner. Something unique about myself is that I know how to play the alto saxophone and was a part of my high school’s saxophone ensemble!

My interest in research started in high school when I conducted a study with my classmates to test the effect of stress-relieving herbal teas on the heart rate of brine shrimp. This experience led me to seek out involvement in undergraduate research. As for my professional goals, I hope to attend medical school and pursue research throughout my academic career. 

When I joined Dr. Soehner’s lab my freshman year, I was given the opportunity to pursue an independent research project to examine the association between light exposure during sleep and depressive symptoms in adolescents. Artificial light sources have become a ubiquitous part of everyday life in humans, spanning from room lighting to personal electronic devices. Exposure to light at night and during sleep can disturb circadian rhythms and reduce sleep quality. However, the detrimental impact of light exposure at night on mood remains understudied in humans. Exploring the impact of nighttime light on mood in adolescents is particularly important, given rising depression incidence rates during this developmental stage and increased use of electronic devices. 

In a pilot study, I investigated the association between white light exposure during nighttime sleep and depressive symptoms in healthy adolescents. Our data indicated that even low levels of white light during sleep are associated with increased subclinical depression severity in psychiatrically healthy adolescents, independent of sleep duration, continuity, and timing. However, our results are correlational, and we are interested to see if greater light exposure during sleep prospectively drives increases in next-day depression severity, or vice versa. Such information will be important to establish light exposure during sleep as a risk factor for depression, which is precisely the issue I will address in my CURF project this semester. 

I am grateful that CURF has allowed me to share my work with others throughout the process. I am also looking forward to learning and reading about my classmates’ research projects. Through this fellowship, I am excited to continue to learn about how light is associated with mood outcomes in adolescents and gain new skills to prepare me for my future.

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