Artificial Lighting in the Industrialized World: Circadian Disruption and Breast Cancer


Breast cancer risk is high in industrialized societies, and increases as developing countries become more Westernized. The reasons are poorly understood. One possibility is circadian disruption from aspects of modern life, in particular the increasing use of electric power to light the night, and provide a sun-free environment during the day inside buildings. Circadian disruption could lead to alterations in melatonin production and in changing the molecular time of the circadian clock in the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN). There is evidence in humans that the endogenous melatonin rhythm is stronger for persons in a bright-day environment than in a dim-day environment; and the light intensity necessary to suppress melatonin at night continues to decline as new experiments are done. Melatonin suppression can increase breast tumorigenesis in experimental animals, and altering the endogenous clock mechanism may have downstream effects on cell cycle regulatory genes pertinent to breast tissue development and susceptibility. Therefore, maintenance of a solar day-aligned circadian rhythm in endogenous melatonin and in clock gene expression by exposure to a bright day and a dark night, may be a worthy goal. However, exogenous administration of melatonin in an attempt to achieve this goal may have an untoward effect given that pharmacologic dosing with melatonin has been shown to phase shift humans depending on the time of day it’s given. Exogenous melatonin may therefore contribute to circadian disruption rather than alleviate it.

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Correspondence to Richard G. Stevens.

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Supported by grant ES11659 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

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Stevens, R.G. Artificial Lighting in the Industrialized World: Circadian Disruption and Breast Cancer. Cancer Causes Control 17, 501–507 (2006).

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  • Breast cancer
  • Circadian disruption
  • Melatonin
  • Shift work