Investigating light sensitivity in bipolar disorder (HELIOS-BD)

Amber Roguski, Nicole Needham, Tom MacGillivray, Jasna Martinovic, Baljean Dhillon, Renata L. Riha, Lyle Armstrong, Iain H. Campbell, Amy Ferguson, Gerrit Hilgen, Majlinda Lako, Philipp Ritter, Nayantara Santhi, Malcolm von Schantz, Manuel Spitschan, Daniel J. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many people with bipolar disorder have disrupted circadian rhythms. This means that the timing of sleep and wake activities becomes out-of-sync with the standard 24-hour cycle. Circadian rhythms are strongly influenced by light levels and previous research suggests that people with bipolar disorder might have a heightened sensitivity to light, causing more circadian rhythm disruption, increasing the potential for triggering a mood switch into mania or depression. Lithium has been in clinical use for over 70 years and is acknowledged to be the most effective long-term treatment for bipolar disorder. Lithium has many reported actions in the body but the precise mechanism of action in bipolar disorder remains an active area of research. Central to this project is recent evidence that lithium may work by stabilising circadian rhythms of mood, cognition and rest/activity. Our primary hypothesis is that people with bipolar disorder have some pathophysiological change at the level of the retina which makes them hypersensitive to the visual and non-visual effects of light, and therefore more susceptible to circadian rhythm dysfunction. We additionally hypothesise that the mood-stabilising medication lithium is effective in bipolar disorder because it reduces this hypersensitivity, making individuals less vulnerable to light-induced circadian disruption. We will recruit 180 participants into the HELIOS-BD study. Over an 18-month period, we will assess visual and non-visual responses to light, as well as retinal microstructure, in people with bipolar disorder compared to healthy controls. Further, we will assess whether individuals with bipolar disorder who are being treated with lithium have less pronounced light responses and attenuated retinal changes compared to individuals with bipolar disorder not being treated with lithium. This study represents a comprehensive investigation of visual and non-visual light responses in a large bipolar disorder population, with great translational potential for patient stratification and treatment innovation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number64
JournalWellcome Open Research
StatePublished - 2024


  • Bipolar disorder
  • circadian rhythm
  • light sensitivity
  • lithium
  • melatonin
  • retina
  • sleep
  • vision


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