Shine a Light for a Healthy Fetus?

What’s New in Psychology?

Shine a Light for a Healthy Fetus?  

Jim Windell


            There are all sorts of things pregnant women can do to promote the healthy development of a fetus. For instance, they can eat a healthy diet, one that is rich in vitamin B12, iron and folic acid. They can limit their caffeine intake, stop drinking alcohol and avoid smoking or second- hand smoke. Furthermore, they can avoid toxic substances, maintain a healthy weight and exercise.

            But what about exposure to light?

            Never heard of that?

            Well, as it turns out, researchers at Umeå University in Sweden believe there may be a link between exposure to light during pregnancy and fetal brain development.

            A research group at Umeå University, together with researchers in the group of Professor Richard Lang at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, have demonstrated that a light receptor called Opsin 3 is already operating in parts of the central and peripheral nervous systems during the early stages of fetal development. The Opsin 3 molecule seems to play important role in the formation of various neurons, neural pathways and areas of the brain and spinal cord. Opsin 3 expression can be linked to a number of motor and sensory neural pathways that regulate movement, pain, vision and olfaction, as well as memory, mood and emotion.

           Although the idea that light may affect cells inside the body, even in the unborn fetus, may seem somewhat peculiar, both calculations and experiments have previously shown that light can pass through skin, soft tissue and the skull to activate photoreceptors.

           The researchers report that Opsin 3 detects light in the blue range at a wavelength of approximately 480 nanometres. Writing in the journal Eneuro, the Umeå researchers' discovery of the expression pattern of this receptor suggests that light plays a vital role in the development and subsequent function of the brain. They indicate that this might explain why the risk of certain neurological and psychiatric diseases varies depending on the seasonal time of birth. So far, this unexplained correlation has been observed in diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy. However, time of birth is only one of several risk factors for the diseases in question.

           At this stage of the research, the findings are based on observations of the brain and nervous system of mice, however, the function is thought to be similar in humans. The researchers are continuing with more detailed studies of how Opsin 3 affects the development and function of the brain.

           But, Professor Lena Gunhaga, with Umeå Centre for Molecular Medicine, Umeå University, says that “Ultimately, this discovery may open up possibilities for using the right kind of light stimulation during pregnancy to reduce the risk of neurological disorders in adulthood.”  She conceded that more research is required before they can issue recommendations about specific light therapies for pregnant women, however, she suggests they are clearly on an exciting track that may eventually prove highly significant.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Wayne I. L. Davies, Soufien Sghari, Brian A. Upton, Christoffer Nord, Max Hahn, Ulf Ahlgren, Richard A. Lang, Lena Gunhaga. (2021). Distinct Opsin 3 (Opn3) Expression in the Developing Nervous System during Mammalian Embryogenesis. eneuro, 8 (5): ENEURO.0141-21.2021 DOI: 10.1523/ENEURO.0141-21.2021

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