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Phase response curve

  A phase response curve (PRC) illustrates the relationship between the timing and the effect of a treatment designed to affect circadian rhythms. Normally, the various rhythms will be in synchrony within an individual (human or animal), and sleep-wake is the most obvious of these rhythms. For humans, a treatment designed to affect circadian rhythms will most often be intended to adjust sleep timing, either delaying it to later in the day (night), or advancing it. Extreme morning people may want to delay their sleep timing; extreme evening chronotypes may wish to advance it.

A PRC is a graph showing, by convention, time-of-day along the x-axis and the amount of the phase shift (in hours) along the y-axis. It has a sigmoidal ('S') shape: the curve has one peak and, the opposite, one nadir in each 24 hours. Relative circadian time is plotted vs. phase shift magnitude.

The two common treatments used to shift the timing of sleep are light therapy, directed at the eyes, and administration of the hormone melatonin, usually taken orally. Either or both can be used daily. Each of these treatments has its own PRC which will vary according to the species being studied. The discussions below are restricted to the human PRCs for light and melatonin.

Additional recommended knowledge


Light PRC

  Starting about two hours before bedtime, exposure to bright light will delay the circadian phase, causing later wake-up time and later sleep onset. The delaying effect gets stronger as evening progresses. About five hours after usual bedtime, the PRC peaks and the effect changes abruptly from phase delay to phase advance. Immediately after this peak, bright light exposure has its greatest phase-advancing effect, causing earlier wake-up and sleep onset. The effect diminishes until about two hours after usual wake-up time, when it reaches zero. During the period between two hours after usual wake-up time and two hours before usual bedtime, bright light exposure has little or no effect on circadian phase (slight effects generally cancelling each other out).

Another image of the PRC for light is here.

Light therapy, typically with a light box producing 10,000 lux at a prescribed distance, can be used in the evening to delay or in the morning to advance one's sleep timing. Because losing sleep to obtain bright light exposure is considered undesirable by most people, and because it's very difficult to estimate exactly when the greatest effect (the PRC peak) will occur in an individual, the treatment is usually applied just prior to bedtime (to achieve phase delay), or just after spontaneous awakening (to achieve phase advance).

In 2002, Brown researchers, led by David Berson, announced the discovery of special cells in the human eye, ipRGCs (intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells)[1], which many researchers now believe control the light entrainment effect of the phase response curve. In the human eye, the ipRGCs have the greatest response light in the 460-480nm (blue) range. In one experiment, 400 lux of blue light produced the same effects as 10,000 lux of white light.[2] Furthermore, there is now evidence for a theory of spectral opponency, in which the addition of other spectral colors renders blue light less effective for circadian phototransduction.[3]

Melatonin PRC

The phase-response curve for melatonin is roughly twelve hours out of phase with the phase-response curve for light. At usual wake-up time, exogenous (externally-administered) melatonin has a slight phase-delaying effect. The amount of phase-delay increases until about eight hours after wake-up time, when the effect swings abruptly from strong phase delay to strong phase advance. The phase-advance effect diminishes as the day goes on until it reaches zero about bedtime. From usual bedtime until wake-up time, exogenous melatonin has no effect on circadian phase.

The human body produces its own (endogenous) melatonin starting about two hours before bedtime, provided the lighting is dim. This is known as dim-light melatonin onset, DLMO. This stimulates the phase-advance portion of the PRC and helps keep the body on a regular sleep-wake schedule. It also helps prepare the body for sleep.

Administration of melatonin at any time may have a mild hypnotic (sleep-inducing) effect. The resultant effect on sleep phase, if any, is governed by the PRC.

Effects are additive

In a newer study (2006), Victoria L. Revell et al have shown that a combination of morning bright light and afternoon melatonin, both timed to phase advance according to the respective PRCs, produce a larger phase advance shift than bright light alone.[4]

N.B.! All times are approximate and vary among individuals. In particular, there is no convenient way of determining the exact timing of the peaks of these curves in an individual. For this reason, administration of light and/or melatonin should generally be avoided for at least an hour on either side of the expected time of the abrupt change of effect. This provides a safety margin to avoid producing the opposite effect of the intended one.

Inventor of the phase-response curve

Honors for inventing the Phase Response Curve in 1960 go to Patricia DeCoursey. The "daily" activity rhythms of her flying squirrels, kept in constant darkness, responded to pulses of light exposure. The response varied according to the time of day -- that is, the animals' subjective "day" -- when light was administered. When DeCoursey plotted all her data relating the quantity and direction (advance or delay) of phase-shift on a single curve, she created the PRC. It has since been a standard tool in the study of biological rhythms.[5]


  1. ^ Brown Scientists Uncover Inner Workings of Rare Eye Cells
  2. ^ [ Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder with Blue Narrow-Band Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs).
  3. ^ Demonstration of additivity failure in human circadian phototransduction
  4. ^ Advancing Human Circadian Rhythms with Afternoon Melatonin and Morning Intermittent Bright Light
  5. ^ Zivkovic, Bora; aka "Coturnix" (2007). Clock Tutorial #3c - Darwin On Time. A Blog Around the Clock. ScienceBlogs LLC. Archived from the original on 2005-01-06. Retrieved on 2007-11-03. “the single most important methodological tool in the study of all biological rhythms”

Rosenthal NE, et al. Phase-shifting effects of bright morning light as treatment for delayed sleep phase syndrome. Sleep 1990;13: 354–361.

Lewy A, Sack R, Fredrickson R, et al: The use of bright light in the treatment of chronobiologic sleep and mood disorders: The phase-response curve. Psychopharmacol Bull 1983; 19:523-525.

Lewy AJ, Ahmed S, Latham JM, et al. Melatonin shifts human circadian rhythms according to a phase-response curve. Chronobiol Int. 1992;9:380-392.

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Phase_response_curve". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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