Research Horizons


Sunlight Reaches Deep Into Brain to Play Key Role in Metabolism

A multi-institutional team of scientists led by Richard Lang, PhD, from Cincinnati Children’s reports in the journal Nature has located, in mice, certain neurons inside the brain that express the protein Opsin 5, which can detect a specific wavelength of violet light from the sun. Those neurons, in turn, send signals that influence a number of  body functions—including metabolism.

This discovery of another way that sunlight affects health has wide-ranging implications that could affect treatment for people with metabolic disorders, how women live during pregnancy, how preterm infants are cared for in hospitals, and someday may transform lighting systems for the workplace.

What does this mean for human health? With the advent of the Industrial Age and the Digital Age, many more people are spending most of their time inside, exposed to various types of indoor lighting that nearly always lack the violet wavelengths found in outdoor sunlight.

“With the modernization of society, many of us are now exposed to artificial lighting that is neither appropriate in timing nor spectral composition. This is not how we evolved.” says first author Kevin Zhang.

To further explore the questions raised by these findings, Cincinnati Children’s is installing a custom-designed, programmable, full-spectrum lighting system as part of the new neonatal intensive care unit in the new Critical Care Building, now under construction.

“We have a great deal more to learn about how light affects human development and influences energy metabolism and disease susceptibility,” Lang says. “This may be the dawn of a new understanding of how people can live healthier lives in the modern world.”

Read the story

Publication Information
Original title: A neuropsin (Opsin 5) deep brain photoreceptor mediates violet-light suppression of thermogenesis
Published in: Nature
Publish date: Sept. 2, 2020
Read the Study

Research By

Richard Lang, PhD
Director, Visual Systems Group
The research conducted in the Lang Laboratory at Cincinnati Children's Research Foundation centers around eye development