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Lab Studies Show that Light Reduces Fear

Lab Studies Show that Light Reduces Fear Using mice as model, University of Virginia researchers discover light plays a role in reducing fear and anxiety.

This finding and application may augment the treatment of a variety of mental disorders including depression, anxiety, panic disorders, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The research builds on earlier findings by biologists and psychologists showing that light affects mood with the new study demonstrating light can modulate fear.

As mice are nocturnal animals, the researchers discovered intense light enhances fear or anxiety in mice, in much the same way that darkness can intensify fear or anxiety in diurnal humans.

The finding is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We looked at the effect of light on learned fear, because light is a pervasive feature of the environment that has profound effects on behavior and physiology,” said Brian Wiltgen.

“Light plays an important role in modulating heart rate, circadian rhythms, sleep/wake cycles, digestion, hormones, mood and other processes of the body. In our study we wanted to see how it affects learned fear.”

Fear is a natural mechanism for survival and is often an instinct. For example, fears or reactions to loud noise, sudden movements and heights are innate.

In addition, humans and other mammals can learn from their experiences which may include dangerous or bad situations. This “learned fear” can protect us from dangers.

Unfortunately, this fear can become abnormally accentuated, sometimes leading to debilitating phobias. About 40 million people in the United States suffer from dysregulated fear and heightened states of anxiety.

“Studies show that light influences learning, memory and anxiety,” Wiltgen said. “We have now shown that light also can modulate conditioned fear responses.”

“In this work we describe the modulation of learned fear by ambient light,” said Ignacio Provencio, an expert on light and photoreception.

“The dysregulation of fear is an important component of many disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, specific phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Understanding how light regulates learned fear may inform therapies aimed at treating some of these fear-based disorders.”

“The implications of this in humans is this: that being diurnal, the absence of light can be a source of fear,” Wiltgen said.

“But increased light can be used to reduce fear and anxiety and to treat depression.

“If we can come to understand the cellular mechanisms that affect this, then eventually abnormal anxiety and fear might be treated with improved pharmaceuticals to mimic or augment light therapy.”

Source: University of Virginia

Lab Studies Show that Light Reduces Fear

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Lab Studies Show that Light Reduces Fear. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 20, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 11 Aug 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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