Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Light regulates multiple non-image-forming (or nonvisual) circadian, neuroendocrine, and neurobehavioral functions, via outputs from intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). Exposure to light directly enhances alertness and performance, so light is an important regulator of wakefulness and cognition. The roles of rods, cones, and ipRGCs in the impact of light on cognitive brain functions remain unclear, however. A small percentage of blind individuals retain non-image-forming photoreception and offer a unique opportunity to investigate light impacts in the absence of conscious vision, presumably through ipRGCs. Here, we show that three such patients were able to choose nonrandomly about the presence of light despite their complete lack of sight. Furthermore, 2 sec of blue light modified EEG activity when administered simultaneously to auditory stimulations. fMRI further showed that, during an auditory working memory task, less than a minute of blue light triggered the recruitment of supplemental prefrontal and thalamic brain regions involved in alertness and cognition regulation as well as key areas of the default mode network. These results, which have to be considered as a proof of concept, show that non-image-forming photoreception triggers some awareness for light and can have a more rapid impact on human cognition than previously understood, if brain processing is actively engaged. Furthermore, light stimulates higher cognitive brain activity, independently of vision, and engages supplemental brain areas to perform an ongoing cognitive process. To our knowledge, our results constitute the first indication that ipRGC signaling may rapidly affect fundamental cerebral organization, so that it could potentially participate to the regulation of numerous aspects of human brain function.