In addition to its role in vision, light exerts strong effects on behavior. Its powerful role in the modulation of mood is well established, yet remains poorly understood. Much research has focused on the effects of light on circadian rhythms and subsequent interaction with alertness and depression. The recent discovery of a third photoreceptor, melanopsin, expressed in a subset of retinal ganglion cells, allows major improvement of our understanding of how photic information is processed. Light affects behavior in two ways, either indirectly through the circadian timing system, or directly through mechanisms that are independent of the circadian system. These latter effects have barely been studied in regard to mood, but recent investigations on the direct effects of light on sleep and alertness suggest additional pathways through which light could influence mood. Based on our recent findings, we suggest that light, via melanopsin, may exert its antidepressant effect through a modulation of the homeostatic process of sleep. Further research is needed to understand how these mechanisms interplay and how they contribute to the photic regulation of mood. Such research could improve therapeutic management of affective disorders and influence the management of societal lighting conditions.
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