Novel Full-Spectrum Lighting Nurtures Premature Infants in NICU

New research, led by Richard Lang, PhD at Cincinnati Children’s, has challenged some long-held assumptions about the impact of artificial light exposure during infancy and beyond. To leverage this knowledge, Cincinnati Children’s is investing in the world’s first full-spectrum NICU lighting system. This puts learnings into action from new research on the benefits of exposure to natural daylight and the impact of circadian rhythms in the NICU environment of care.

The new lights, which provide the full range of wavelengths found in natural daylight, are part of the state-of-the-art NICU that opened in fall 2021 as part of Cincinnati Children’s eight-story critical care building.

The special fixtures represent one of the boldest technical advances built into the new tower, says James Greenberg, MD, co-director of the Perinatal Institute at Cincinnati Children’s.

“The typical NICU patient is hospitalized for about a month and experiences rapid neurological development during that time,” Greenberg says. “Also, ICUs in general are challenging places for people of any age because there aren’t many windows, and it’s difficult to establish day and night rhythms needed for proper sleep cycles and growth.”

Only in recent years have scientists learned more about the importance of day-night circadian cycles for fetal development. Circadian biology impacts developments within the central nervous system and the function of immunologic and metabolic processes.

The lighting project involved developing a six-channel lighting fixture capable of mixing spectra to recreate the lighting “recipe” of Cincinnati (or any other city) from sunrise to sunset. The data required to define the light-mix are gathered from a small, glass domed sensor mounted high atop one of Cincinnati Children’s research buildings.

Cincinnati Children’s has applied for a patent related to its programmable spectral lighting system.

One goal of the lighting system is to specifically manage the quality of light the NICU newborns receive during twilight hours, which doctors say is important to maintaining a stable circadian rhythm. A smooth-running internal clock supports better sleep, which in turn supports healthy growth and development.

With the new lighting system, experts hope to determine more precisely how to adjust NICU light exposure so that newborns receive the ideal amount of light during key windows of development.

Greenberg says, “We expect this first-of-its-kind application of spectral lighting will positively impact NICU patients for years to come.”

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