Midwest Lighting Institute explores effects of lighting on humans

Cottage Grove’s Midwest Lighting Institute is exploring how varying the type of lighting in different facilities can affect human behavior, health and productivity while driving down energy costs.

“Lighting has been a field that most people, quite frankly, haven’t thought a whole lot about,” said Tamara Sondgeroth, president and executive director of MLI. “I mean, as long as you can see to complete whatever task it is you need to do, that’s about as far as most people have thought about lighting.”

Not so for Sondgeroth, who worked as director of energy portfolios and director of operations for Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy program from 2012 through 2015.

Now, she is working to foster understanding of how specialized energy-efficient lighting can have objective, measurable effects on people in schools, hospitals and nursing homes.

The nonprofit institute performs research in these three settings, focusing its exploration on how the eye functions not only as a navigational organ, but also as sort of an on-and-off button for wakefulness. To activate that button, special nerve cells in the eye called ganglion cells must be hit with certain wavelengths of light, causing the release of hormones that increase or decrease the sense of being awake and alert.

In a natural setting, this activation comes from the morning sun, as higher levels of blue light spur people to rise and shine. But now that most folks spend nearly all their waking hours in what Sondgeroth calls “built space,” that age-old rhythm is disrupted.

“We have found that a very specific spectrum of blue light has the most impact on those ganglion cells,” she said. “So it kind of made intuitive sense to me, as I started to get into this a little bit more, that on bright sunny days and the blue skies out there — gosh, I feel a lot more awake, alive, ready to go take on the world than on days where it’s kind of cloudy, dreary, and I want to just crawl back into bed.”

MLI is teaming up with respected research groups like UW-Madison and Harvard Medical School to look at objective measures of human behavior, and how varying the amount of blue light in certain environments can change those measures.

For example, Sondgeroth pointed to falls in senior care facilities.

“So what we have found is that, there was a preliminary study done by the Department of Energy out in California, that showed if you could replicate sunlight inside of a nursing home, it looks like you can reduce the fall rates,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults falling down cost Medicare $31 billion in 2015 alone, and the average hospital cost for a fall injury is over $30,000.

Sondgeroth says simple lighting changes can mitigate these costs in senior care facilities, and could also help to reduce medical errors in hospitals.

“And you can increase [hospitals’] ACA reimbursement rates,” says Rodney Heller, MLI chairman and senior lighting designer at Energy Performance Lighting. “Because if you have fewer errors, and people get out of the hospital quicker, you make more money because they get paid ‘X’ amount for this procedure, and if the procedure lasts two days, or lasts three days, you get paid the same amount.”

MLI is located within the same building as EPL, and is funded by a donation from the lighting installation company. Songeroth says MLI is currently seeking grant money to continue research “and also to license out what we learn — our intellectual property.”

For K-12 schools, MLI is looking into partnering with local utility companies as well as Harvard Medical School, using standardized testing as an objective measurement tool.

The institute is already testing a specialized lightswitch in schools which has four modes: wake, learn, test and relax. Each setting has a different amount of blue light, and is meant to help create an ideal learning environment.

Sondgeroth says there are potential applications for this kind of research in special needs classrooms, where the lighting can affect the behavior of kids with autism or other issues.

She says MLI’s four-mode lighting system gives teachers in these spaces a powerful tool to de-escalate situations that are spiraling out of control.

“It gives you an extra tool where you don’t have to interact with them,” she said. “You flip the light, and it literally brings down the energy in the people who are there. So just think about that — 50 to 75 percent energy savings, plus an extra tool where the teacher doesn’t have to touch anybody. There’s no issue, you just change the light to pull the blue out.”

–By Alex Moe