How resetting the rhythm might help beat Alzheimer’s

Kate Turley on how realigning circadian rhythms could improve sleep and contribute to the slowing of the progression of dementia.

The circadian rhythm governs many daily functions of living organisms, including sleep-wake cycles, mood, rest-activity patterns, metabolism and hormone balance. Supporting the circadian rhythm is especially important for individuals with dementia as they experience more circadian disruptions, and circadian lighting is understood to hold strong potential of benefiting their wellbeing.

How resetting the rhythm might help beat Alzheimer's
PhD student Kate Turley has been awarded a Fellowship to research how environmentally affective circadian lighting can benefit healthy aging

Our internal body clock and health

Typically, we wake, sleep, eat and exert energy at regular times in the day – a sequence not founded through coincidence. From our early hunter-gatherer ancestors, lifestyles were shaped by the rising and setting sun which dictated when to be active and when to seek shelter and rest.

Resultantly, the human circadian rhythm or body clock evolved to receive its primary stimulus from the environmental cues of natural daylight and darkness. This enforced the regulation between sleep during times of darkness and activity during the daylight hours over approximately 24-hour cycles.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, where industrial booms have facilitated our lifestyles in becoming ‘sleepless societies’, and where rapid progress in technology has led us to spend 90% of our time indoors often staring at a screen all day. Our ‘environmental’ lighting cues have now become artificial, and the discrepancies between the spectra (colors, intensities, durations, timings) of this indoor lighting and daylight are causing chaos for the synchronisation of our circadian rhythms. Since these rhythms are responsible for controlling functions such as mood, rest-activity, and sleep-wake cycles, this disruption can become extremely detrimental to wellbeing.

Further to this, people who are living with dementia experience disproportionately large deviations from a typical circadian rhythm. This is because a diagnosis of dementia is primarily defined by cognitive decline which occurs due to a build-up of abnormal plaques that block pathways between different parts of the brain.

In fact, studies have demonstrated that there exists some sort of ‘catch 22’ within dementia diagnoses whereby their disrupted rhythms are causing poor sleep quality. Ironically, sleep happens to be one of the essential processes for unblocking some of these abnormal proteins and slowing the progression of cognitive decline. Therefore, creating ways to realign their circadian rhythms could improve sleep and contribute to the slowing of the progression of dementia.

Because of the 7% prevalence of dementia over the age of 65, research into techniques to synchronise circadian rhythms both within dementia and to promote healthy aging and longevity go hand-in-hand. Researchers in this field are trying to understand how the timing and spectra of lighting can be used to influence the behavioral and psychological symptoms in dementia by conducting trials of lighting in care facilities. The wider objective is to determine how to apply this lighting at the right times of the day at appropriate levels in order to support the body clock and promote sleep. This can prove difficult to administer due to the lack of data collected on the lighting exposures throughout the day.

Personalized solutions

To address this issue, I am working alongside Chroma Lighting and Ulster University to provide an indoor lighting and sensing technology which can support an individual’s body clock and simultaneously monitor the impacts on sleep/wake and rest-activity, alongside additional parameters of wellbeing and quality of life.

How resetting the rhythm might help beat Alzheimer's
Kate Turley’s indoor lighting technology could help slow dementia

Perhaps one of the most pressing motivators for why I got into this research field is that no matter how progressive our technology or research into dementia pathologies, the diagnosis still has no cure. I am one of the majority within our society today who will have experienced the fallout from its unforgiving grasp through encounters with relatives or friends alike. Until we discover that highly sought seed of knowledge that represents such a cure, I feel there is a responsibility to conduct further research into ways to alleviate their symptoms in the most non-invasive, therapeutic and effective ways possible. As such, my research is focused on developing upon this reactionary approach to dementia.

My research is tasked with bringing daylight indoors to support quality of life and healthy aging. Essentially, this involves the design and implementation of a novel architecture between luminaires (lighting units) and sensors that allows for bidirectional communications between the devices. In essence, the luminaires need to be able to produce a variation in spectra based on the observations from the sensors so that it becomes a data-driven solution. The sensors track the movements of individuals throughout the day, resolving their location, their activity levels and the times they enter/exit the bed, thus informing the sleep/wake cycle.

This rest-activity data then gives an indication of the circadian rhythm of an individual which allows us to interpret when to apply lighting and how to adjust the spectra to align with peak alerting and peak relaxation times. This, then produces tailored daylight-simulating lighting to users based on their individual rhythms. What’s really exciting about this research output is that it can address the aforementioned issues of circadian disruption for people living with dementia which could even potentially reduce their rate of cognitive decline.

The method

The research project will seek to conduct a trial of the dynamic lighting and sensing technology in a care home for people who are living with dementia with the aim to discover the benefit to wellbeing compared to pre-installed static lighting. It will make use of depth-sensing radar to collect data that can be leveraged in bespoke algorithms that have been created to determine total sleep time, sleep disturbances and bouts alongside rest-activity and location metrics. In addition, the research will benefit from validated wellbeing scales to collect information on mood, social isolation, agitation and sense of feeling at home within the environment.

Over a period of at least 16 weeks, the project will benefit from observing and storing these circadian-related metrics. This data is then enriched by the fact that the novel architecture will also return lighting data from the network so the times when the trialled lighting is turned ‘on’ and ‘off’ and the spectral content of the lighting will also be reported. This information will prove critical in generating an overall view of the relationship between daylight-simulating lighting and wellbeing in dementia. In time, the objective is to provide dynamic lighting recommendations for every individual with dementia based on the measured requirements of their circadian rhythms – a concept not yet achieved for this cohort to date.

How resetting the rhythm might help beat Alzheimer's
Kate Turley will trialling the dynamic lighting and sensing technology in a care home for people who are living with dementia

Research with impact

This research has the capacity to monumentally benefit people living with dementia since the alignment of the circadian rhythm with the daylight cycle exhibits such a strong positive influence on rest-activity patterns, mood, hormone balance and sleep-wake cycles. On top of this, relieving some of the symptoms of dementia can relieve some of the strain on primary care providers such as family members.

This outcome could even help prolong healthy aging at home which would relieve pressure on the healthcare services as well. If people are living with dementia in care homes, the access to circadian-related health metrics on a visualisation board could help support the delivery of care as a value-added feature. Thanks to the PhD funding and support delivered by The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, this research is underway and the prospects for supporting dementia are extremely promising. With the scalability of this novel technology built into its design, the capacity for understanding the interdisciplinary field of lighting, circadian rhythms and dementia will provide a wealth of knowledge for sharing with industry, academics and society alike.


About Kate Turley

Kate Turley is an Ulster University PhD student working alongside Chroma Lighting to develop a personalized indoor lighting system, informed by data-driven insights on daily activity, to help align the circadian rhythm and body clock of individuals with dementia.

In 2023, Kate was one of 15 researchers awarded the prestigious Industrial Fellowship with the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, a programme working to connect academia and industry to start industry relevant innovation. The Fellows work alongside academic and industrial partners to develop real-world solutions.

Kate’s research, Environmentally affective circadian lighting and IoT solution for healthy ageing is supported through her Fellowship. Her project involves the development of a personalised indoor lighting system, informed by data-driven insights on daily activity, to help align the circadian rhythm and body clock of individuals with dementia. The valuable data collected will scaffold the provision of individual tailored support.

Photographs courtesy of Kate Turley / Chroma Lighting / Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851