Translational Sensory and Circadian Neuroscience

Translational Sensory and Circadian Neuroscience

The Max Planck Research Group Translational Sensory and Circadian Neuroscience aims to understand the effects of light on human physiology and behaviour.

Mechanisms underlying human circadian and neuroendocrine photoreception in health and disease

Light influences our physiology and behaviour. For example, exposure to light at night can suppress the production of the hormone melatonin and shift our endogenous circadian rhythm. These "non-visual" effects of light are mediated by a pathway connecting the eye – and specifically, a subset of blue-sensitive retinal ganglion cells – to the hypothalamus. Combining methods from vision science with chronobiology, our work focuses on understanding what the eye tells the brain – beyond seeing.

Understanding and modifying light exposure in the real world

Light being a major influence on the human circadian system – and specifically its associated negative effects in the evening and a night – the modification of light exposure is an interesting target for interventions. We are interested in understanding not only the statistical structure of light exposure across different populations, but also developing cost-effective ways of manipulating light exposure in a personalised fashion. As the circadian system and sleep are intimately linked to mental and physical health, understanding the pathways that control this sleep is a key puzzle to promoting health and well-being.

Non-canonical light-sensitive pathways in humans

It is estimated that about a fifth of people sneeze, or feel the need to sneeze, when they are exposed to bright light. This is called the photic sneeze reflex, and captured scientists and the public for a long time. What underlies this quirky yet everyday phenomenon is not clear. We are interested in understanding the mechanisms that mediate the photic sneeze reflex.

Meta-science: Standardisation, open science, and novel approaches

With the non-visual effects of lights becoming an important focus of regulation and recommendations, including in the built environment, an openly accessible and reproducible evidence base is a key requirement. To this end, we work on developing standards for reporting light exposure in published studies, data standards to make data FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable), and open-source software (such as luox).


We use a multi-modal hybrid-methods approach in our research. These include:

  • Circadian and neuroendocrine assessment methods
  • Spectral engineering for tailoring and design of light stimuli
  • (Psycho)physiological measurements, including pupillometry, DLMO and core body temperature
  • Measurement of rest-activity cycles using actigraphy
  • Functional neuroimaging
  • Computational modelling
  • Ecological momentary assessment
  • Ambulatory light measurement measurements
  • Survey-based methods
  • Behavioural interventions
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