Science

NASA hopes LED lights will cure astronaut insomnia

It probably won't look like this, but colorful LEDs are heading for the ISS (originals: Shutterstock [1] [2])
It probably won't look like this, but colorful LEDs are heading for the ISS (originals: Shutterstock [1] [2])
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It probably won't look like this, but colorful LEDs are heading for the ISS (originals: Shutterstock [1] [2])
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It probably won't look like this, but colorful LEDs are heading for the ISS (originals: Shutterstock [1] [2])
NASA's solution to astronaut insomnia is similar to Philips' solution to SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)
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NASA's solution to astronaut insomnia is similar to Philips' solution to SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)
Astronaut Michael Fincke showing off one of the LEDs
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Astronaut Michael Fincke showing off one of the LEDs
NASA's Solid State Lighting Module (SSLM)
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NASA's Solid State Lighting Module (SSLM)
NASA hopes the lights' positive effects will justify their $11.2 million cost
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NASA hopes the lights' positive effects will justify their $11.2 million cost

Sleep deprivation is no joke. It can cause lower performance, decreased memory, and even sickness. So, if you spend your life orbiting Earth on a $150B spacecraft, you're going to take sleep seriously. NASA, responding to an epidemic of insomnia, is ready to give the International Space Station (ISS) an LED makeover.

The cure?

Astronaut Michael Fincke showing off one of the LEDs
Astronaut Michael Fincke showing off one of the LEDs

Living in the noisy, high-pressure ISS makes sleep difficult. The result: roughly half of all astronauts, at some point, take sleep medication. It's a quick fix, but it can cause dependency and inhibit astronauts' ability to wake up suddenly for an emergency. You don't want zombie-like astronauts, but you also don't want drug-addicted ones.

NASA's new solution taps into the human brain's response to light cycles. The agency is spending US$11.2 million to outfit the ISS' U.S. section with LED lights. The lights, set to be installed by 2016, simulate nature: blue in the morning, white during the day, and red in the evening.

Tapping into nature?

NASA's Solid State Lighting Module (SSLM)
NASA's Solid State Lighting Module (SSLM)

It's similar to an Earth-bound solution for the winter blues. Light therapy gizmos fight Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) by simulating daylight. The bluish hue tricks the brain into suppressing sleep-inducing melatonin, and increasing energy-producing melanopsin. Reddish LEDs can have the opposite effect, inducing drowsiness. NASA hopes to apply the same principles.

The agency can control the lighting from the ground, or let the astronauts adjust it on site. The system prepares the astronauts for better sleep, but its flexibility opens the door to smoother transitions of working hours.

Will the LEDs lead to better-rested, more focused ISS inhabitants? If so, the results would be difficult to measure, but likely plentiful. But if they fail and insomnia persists, you may hear more the next time NASA's budget is on the table.

Source: NASA via MSNBC, Dvice

10 comments
sk8dad
What's wrong with sleeping masks and ear plugs? How much will this light cost both in terms of R&D and payload?
Slowburn
re; sk8dad They do nothing about the messed up biorhythms which the light therapy is suppose to correct.
Phileaux
Don't you think they've tried the mask&plug method? The entire surface of the skin is part of the light/dark sleep cycle. If you're sightless in a bright area your skin response is to produce melanin ie. tan. This production signals the brain that it's daylight. The only spectrum of light that doesn't do this is Red. Studies were conducted in a completely dark test area and subjects were exposed to different colors/spectrums of light to the skin BEHIND THE KNEE no where else. Blood drawn shows an increase in melanopsin in response to all colors except Red. BTW: This study prompted me to replace all bulbs in the night lights of my children's rooms, bathrooms and to cover any light not red. It does seem more soothing to me and their is no adjustment time for my eyes when I go back into a dark room. And before anyone comments, Yes I understand the placebo effect.
Scott Smith
Why haven't they thought about employing full spectrum lighting combined with light deprivation? Why do I have to come up with all the good ideas?
Gethin Coles
Or they could give each astronaut 2 pairs of tinted shades and save 11.9999m
L1ma
@sk8dad R&D is already done, I expect they will slip them up with the commercial payload (1/10th the usual cost)- remember that fluorescents only last around 3 to 5 years and the space station has been operational since 1998, so there must be regular failures and replacements. This just means the crew quarters are replaced first and those units are used as spares. With the space station considered ready for decommissioning in 2028 there is plenty of time for a gradual replacement programme.
AngryPenguin
@sk8dad, you wouldn't wear a sleeping mask 12 hours from sunset to sunrise, would you? You technically could, but it would start to get stressful after the first week.
Daishi
I'm with Phileaux on this one. Red light and red spectrum doesn't get enough appreciation it seems. I'm on the east coast and if I left my old porch light on it drew bugs to it. I replaced it with a yellow LED and the bugs don't go near it. It also doesn't mess with my night vision like my old light so I can see out into the darker yard. I wish I would have done this sooner. In the military red lighting is used for tactical operations but most of the civilian world has not yet caught on. I wish I could switch all my interior lights over to red from about 10 PM on. I might get to sleep at a decent hour.
Grainpaw
Sounds like a great idea for home lightbulbs. We spend too much time staring at computer screens. When will we get screens with adjustable spectrum for background or edge lighting?
Elder 1
I installed very similar lighting about 6 weeks ago. I have what is called "non-24" syndrome. My body clock naturally cycles on about a 27 hour clock so I cycle around the clock every couple of weeks. My house is already all LED lighting so I added a 300 LED RGB light strip along the upper corner of the wall in the main room. This is adjustable throughout the spectrum using a remote control with memory. The effect of light colour on the autonomic system is not in doubt. It is well established by many rigorous scientific studies. I love the new lighting and it does seem to help. For the first time in decades I have been able to mostly keep to a 24 hour schedule. Oh yes, they only cost me about $40.