Br J Ophthalmol 92:1439-1444 doi:10.1136/bjo.2008.141747
  • Review

Circadian photoreception: ageing and the eye’s important role in systemic health

Open Access
  1. P L Turner,
  2. M A Mainster
  1. University of Kansas School of Medicine, Prairie Village, Kansas, USA
  1. Professor M A Mainster, Department of Ophthalmology, University of Kansas School of Medicine, 7400 State Line Road, Prairie Village, KS 66208-3444, USA; mmainste{at}; plturnermd{at}
  • Accepted 6 August 2008
  • Published Online First 29 August 2008


Aim: To analyse how age-related losses in crystalline lens transmittance and pupillary area affect circadian photoreception and compare the circadian performance of phakic and pseudophakic individuals of the same age.

Methods: The spectral sensitivity of circadian photoreception peaks in the blue part of the spectrum at approximately 460 nm. Photosensitive retinal ganglion cells send unconscious information about environmental illumination to non-visual brain centres including the human body’s master biological clock in the suprachiasmatic nuclei. This information permits human physiology to be optimised and aligned with geophysical day–night cycles using neural and hormonal messengers including melatonin. Age-related transmittance spectra of crystalline lenses and photopic pupil diameter are used with the spectral sensitivity of melatonin suppression and the transmittance spectra of intraocular lenses (IOLs) to analyse how ageing and IOL chromophores affect circadian photoreception.

Results: Ageing increases crystalline lens light absorption and decreases pupil area resulting in progressive loss of circadian photoreception. A 10-year-old child has circadian photoreception 10-fold greater than a 95-year-old phakic adult. A 45-year-old adult retains only half the circadian photoreception of early youth. Pseudophakia improves circadian photoreception at all ages, particularly with UV-only blocking IOLs which transmit blue wavelengths optimal for non-visual photoreception.

Conclusions: Non-visual retinal ganglion photoreceptor responses to bright, properly timed light exposures help assure effective circadian photoentrainment and optimal diurnal physiological processes. Circadian photoreception can persist in visually blind individuals if retinal ganglion cell photoreceptors and their suprachiasmatic connections are intact. Retinal illumination decreases with ageing due to pupillary miosis and reduced crystalline lens light transmission especially of short wavelengths. Inadequate environmental light and/or ganglion photoreception can cause circadian disruption, increasing the risk of insomnia, depression, numerous systemic disorders and possibly early mortality. Artificial lighting is dimmer and less blue-weighted than natural daylight, contributing to age-related losses in unconscious circadian photoreception. Optimal intraocular lens design should consider the spectral requirements of both conscious and unconscious retinal photoreception.


  • Competing interests: PLT has received travel grants from Advanced Medical Optics, Incorporated. MAM serves as a consultant for Advanced Medical Optics, Iridex and Ocular Instruments Corporations.

  • This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.