Scientific American: How your smartphone messes with your brain — and your sleep

Scientific American science blogger Josh Fischman drew on the sleep expertise of SMU Assistant Professor of Chemistry Brian D. Zoltowski to explain how artificial light from our smartphones and other digital devices causes sleep deprivation. His blog article, “How your smartphone messes with your brain — and your sleep,” published May 20 and has been heavily shared through social media.

Zoltowski’s lab at SMU studies one of the many proteins involved in an organism’s circadian clocks. Called a photoreceptor, the protein responds to light to predict time of day and season by measuring day length.

The circadian clock is an internal biological mechanism that responds to light, darkness and temperature in a natural 24-hour biological cycle. The clock synchronizes body systems with the environment to regulate everything from sleep patterns and hunger in humans to growth patterns and flowering in plants.

“Our research focuses on understanding the chemical basis for how organisms perceive their surroundings and use light as an environmental cue to regulate growth and development,” Zoltowski says.

Zoltowski and the American Chemical Society created a video explaining the light-sleep deprivation relationship.

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EXCERPT:

By Josh Fischman
Scientific American

It’s not the Angry Birds, streaming videos, emails from your boss, or your Facebook updates that disturb your sleep when you spend an evening staring at your smartphone or tablet. OK, the apps can keep you glued to your screen until the wee hours, and that doesn’t help. But it is the specific type of light from that screen that is throwing off your natural sleep-wake cycles, even after you power down. In a new video from Reactions: Everyday Chemistry, a sleep researcher explains the eerie power of blue light over your brain.

Cells at the back of your eyes pick up particular light wavelengths and, with a light-sensitive protein called melanopsin, signal the brain’s master clock, which controls the body’s circadian rhythms. Blue light, which in nature is most abundant in the morning, tells you to get up and get moving. Red light is more common at dusk and it slows you down. Now, guess what kind of light is streaming from that little screen in your hand at 11:59 P.M.? “Your iPad, your phone, your computer emit large quantities of blue light,” says sleep researcher and chemist Brian Zoltowski of Southern Methodist University

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SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls nearly 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools. For more information see www.smu.edu.

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