TEDMED 2020 Meetups

TEDMED Meetups, uniquely designed conversations, engage the entire TEDMED community to share their individual perspectives and voices to help improve humanity’s health. Read on to view some of the details of these captivating conversations taking place at TEDMED 2020.

Meetup 1
Tuesday, March 3rd, 8:00 am- 8:45 am

Climate and Culture, A Health Equity Conversation
Hosted by RWJF and facilitated by Malik Yakini, an RWJF Health Equity Expert
Speakers: Cheryl Holder, Jyoti Sharma, and Thijs Biersteker
Description: When we consider human health, we must consider climate health. Whether it is the impact the climate has on the social determinants of our health, the depletion of essential resources like water caused by a changing climate, or how we can harness art to better connect ourselves to our environment, each Speaker in this Meetup has a unique understanding of our connection to climate and its impact on our health. Facilitated by Malik Yakinin, a leader of the movement to bring great equity to the global food system, this Meetup will explore how climate shapes our culture and impacts our health.

The Good Life
Hosted by the TEDMED Community and facilitated by Lucy Kalanithi, TEDMED EAB Member and TEDMED 2016 Speaker
Speakers: Kevin Toolis and Louise Aronson
Description: It’s one of the oldest philosophical questions: What is the good life? As we confront aging bodies and our own mortality, how do we embrace the beauty and dynamism of our lives in ways that enhance and expand our health and wellbeing? Hosted by former TEDMED Speaker and Stanford Medicine internist, Lucy Kalanithi, this Meetup will explore how reframing the stages of elderhood and embracing death as part of life can help us cultivate the good life.

The Future of Health
Hosted by Deloitte and facilitated by Jennifer Radin, Life Sciences & Health Care Principal at Deloitte
Speakers: Anupam B. Jena, Michel Maharbiz, and Suchi Saria
Description: Data is all around us and within us. With progressive innovation comes new insights to advance health and medicine. This Meetup will explore how natural experiments can reveal important phenomena in our everyday lives, how tiny ultrasound activated implants can provide real-time information about our physiology, and how machine learning is saving lives in our medical system. Led by Deloitte, this Meetup allows us to wonder what the future of health will look like.

Compassionate Care
Hosted by Astellas Oncology and facilitated by Shontelle Dodson, Senior Vice President for Health Systems at Astellas
Speakers: Lisa Sanders and Shekinah Elmore
Description: When faced with a difficult diagnosis or living with a serious illness, we must often manage a great deal of uncertainty. Whether it is helping to find a diagnosis or guiding us through the uncertainty of an unexpected health concern, health care providers and caregivers play an integral role in ensuring that patients can find fulfillment even in their most uncertain moments. Shontelle Dodson, a health systems leader at Astellas, will guide this discussion about the importance of infusing more compassion into care.

Meetup 2
Tuesday, March 3rd, 11:15 am- 12:00 pm

A Culture of Health, A Health Equity Conversation
Hosted by RWJF and facilitated by Aletha Maybank, an RWJF Health Equity Expert
Speakers: Joseph Shin, Sandro Galea, and Wanda Irving
Description: How do we create a culture of health in asylum settings and within systems teeming with racism? How do we create a culture that breeds love and not hate? How do we cultivate a culture of inclusivity and equity in healthcare? Aletha Maybank, the American Medical Association’s first Chief Health Equity Officer, will lead this conversation about bringing to light the darkest parts of our society in order to ensure that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible.

Personalizing Digital Health
Hosted by Abbott and facilitated by Toni Nosbush, DVP of Global Product Development at Abbott
Hive Innovators: Claire Novorol of Ada Health; Leah Sparks of Wildflower Health; and, Jon Bloom of Podimetrics
Description: Today’s technology allows healthcare to be personalized like never before. In this Innovator Meetup, conversation will center around the trend in digital health that creates space for tailored health experiences. While these Innovators’ have varied focuses – ranging from family planning, to patient centered care coordination, and diabetic foot ulcers – the common thread is their focus on effective, reliable, and personalized care experiences. Guided by Toni Nosbush, a leader in global product development at Abbott, this Meetup will explore how better communication between doctor and patient, facilitated by personalized health tools, patients can receive tailored care to become and stay healthy.

New Age Diagnostics
Hosted by the TEDMED Community and facilitated by Laura Indolfi, TEDMED 2016 Hive Innovator
Hive Innovators: Andy Beck of PathAI; Gabe Kwong of Glympse Bio; Niamh O’Hara of Biotia; William Dunbar of Ontera
Description: In this Hive Innovator Meetup, you will have the chance to learn about cutting edge life science innovation. With today’s scientific advancements, new diagnostic models have emerged to detect and intercept disease faster than ever. With AI-powered pathology and diagnostics, a closer look at the epigenome, and miniaturized biological sensors, these Innovators are reimagining disease diagnostics. Their technology will shape a future in which illness can be identified accurately, quickly, and reliably every time. TEDMED 2016 Hive Innovator Laura Indolfi will lead this conversation about the possibilities of new age diagnostics.

New Models of Mental Health Care
Hosted by the TEDMED Community and facilitated Pat Salber, TEDMED Community Member
Hive Innovators: April Koh of Spring Health; Peter Hames of Big Health; Paula Searcy of Sana Health
Description: Understanding mental health care has become an important theme of our time. With a steady rise in the prevalence of mental health conditions, we must leverage new tools and approaches to keep people healthy. In this Meetup, Innovators will discuss varying models of care that work to improve mental health. You will learn about medical devices, digital health products, and systems level tools that leverage new technology to improve mental health conditions like PTSD, sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, and more. Pat Salber, Editor-in-Chief of The Doctor Weighs In, will facilitate this Meetup about the potential of new models of mental health care to lead to personalized, tailored, and effective care we have not seen before.

Meetup 3
Tuesday, March 3rd, 1:00 pm – 1:45 pm

A Just World
Hosted by the TEDMED Community and facilitated by Pam Belluck, TEDMED EAB Member
Speakers: Homer Venters, Laurie Hallmark, and Yasmin Hurd
Description: From combating the opioid epidemic with nontraditional solutions, to transforming legal representation and advocacy for people with serious mental illness, to restoring health justice for incarcerated individuals, the Speakers in this Meetup are improving health for some of society’s most vulnerable populations. Pam Belluck, Pulitzer Prize winning science writer for The New York Times, will facilitate this discussion about what it means to create a fair and just world.

Health Techquity, A Health Equity Conversation
Hosted by RWJF and facilitated by Margaret Laws, an RWJF Health Equity Expert
Hive Innovators: Kevin Quennesson of Braid.Health; Mercy Asiedu of Calla Health; Taylor Justice of Unite Us
Description: “Techquity” describes the use of technology to create a more equitable world. In this Meetup, Innovators will share how they are making healthcare more accessible and equitable by leveraging new-age technology. From a medical device that empowers women to understand their cervical health, to a platform connecting vulnerable populations to social service providers, and an AI-powered tool that makes radiology accessible to all people, these Innovators are using technology to fill major gaps in today’s healthcare system. Margaret Laws, an RWJF TEDMED 2020 Health Equity Expert and head of HopeLab, will facilitate this conversation about how ‘techquity’ can help health become more equitable, faster.

The Power of Medical Knowledge
Hosted by the TEDMED Community and facilitated by Jeff Karp, TEDMED EAB Member; TEDMED 2014 Speaker
Hive Innovators: Andrew Le of Buoy; Jane van Dis of Maven; Sunny Williams of Tiny Docs
Description: Should medical knowledge be reserved for trained professionals, or can it lie with patients and communities? The Innovators in this Meetup will speak to the importance of empowering patients with medical knowledge that is accurate, reliable, and tailored to their unique needs. TEDMED 2014 Speaker Jeff Karp will lead this conversation examining how medical knowledge can be delivered in various forms–telemedicine, virtual communities, AI-powered assistants, or even “caretoons” — all while serving the tailored needs women, children, underserved populations, or your average health consumer.

Mapping Human Health
Hosted by the TEDMED Community and facilitated by Zen Chu, TEDMED Community Member
Hive Innovators: Andy Blackwell of Eight Billion Minds; Katharine Grabek of Fauna Bio; Nancy Yu of RDMD; Ted Schenkelberg of Human Vaccines Project
Description: With the rise of technology, we have the opportunity to capture health data like never before. In this Meetup, Innovators will demonstrate the ways in which data can be mapped, across conditions, to better understand, analyze, and reimagine human health. Zen Chu of MIT’s Hacking Medicine Initiative will lead this Meetups about mapping trends around mental health, immunity, rare diseases, or even animal genomics, and what it means for the future of data and human health.

Meetup 4
Tuesday, March 3rd, 4:15 pm – 5:00 pm

Youth and Truth, A Health Equity Conversation
Hosted by RWJF and facilitated by Kellan Baker, an RWJF Health Equity Expert
Speakers: Anne Marie Albanno, Cheryl King, Francis X. Shen
Description: Dealing with anxiety, mood disorders, developing brains, sexuality, and social pressures is just one aspect of the challenges that come with the transition from adolescence to young adulthood. How can we better understand the developing brain in order to ensure that all individuals receive access to the treatment and care they require? Facilitated by Kellan Baker, a leading researcher of how reshaping socioeconomic and political determinants of health can create greater health equity for transgender populations and other marginalized groups, this Meetup will focus on how we as a society can best support our young adults.

Meaning Making and Memory
Hosted by the TEDMED Community and facilitated by Kafui Dzirasa, TEDMED EAB Member and TEDMED 2017 Speaker
Speakers: Anne Basting, Beatie Wolfe, Frederick Streeter Barrett
Description: French philosopher, Rene Descartes’ famous words “I think, therefore I am” is a powerful statement about a sense of awareness within ourselves. In this Meetup, we explore our brain as a dynamic and complex organ by evaluating creative stimuli that lead to surprising reactions in patients with cognitive impairments and by understanding mind altering experiences that allow us to grow and to heal. Led by former TEDMED Speaker, Kafui Dzirasa, this Meetup challenges us to consider the meaning of life when memories fade.

The Social Side of Health
Hosted by Humana and facilitated by William Shrank, Chief Medical and Corporate Affairs Officer at Humana
Speakers: Cheryl Holder and Jonathan Gruber
Description: Health, as we know, is more than just medical. Our health is impacted by economics, the healthcare system, the environment, and our social surroundings. Whether it’s understanding the impact of a changing climate on population health or structuring our health systems to make healthcare better and more accessible, how we think about the social side of healthcare matters. Humana’s Chief Medical and Corporate Affairs Officer, William Shrank, will guide this discussion.

Trust in Medicine
Hosted by the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) and facilitated by USP’s CEO Ron Piervincenzi
Speakers: Heidi Larson, Katherine Eban, and Ralph Nader
Description: We all deserve medicines that we can trust, but globally, many lack access to high-quality medicines and the health impacts can be detrimental. In this Meetup, hear from TEDMED Speakers who are examining the conditions in which low-cost generic medicine are made, are advocating for consumer rights to help ensure we have access to safe medicines, and are working to restore the public’s trust in the vaccines that help keep us safe. Facilitated by Ron Piervincenzi, the CEO of the U.S. Pharmacopeia, this conversation will dive into how leading thinkers and doers are working to build and maintain trust in medicine.

Meetup 5
Wednesday, March 4th, 8:00 am – 8:45 am

Infectious Disease and Innovation
Hosted by the TEDMED Community and facilitated by Celine Gounder, TEDMED EAB Member
Speakers: Heidi Larson, Leor Weinberger, and Matt Hepburn
Description: What does it take to fight disease and are we prepared for the next pandemic? Infectious disease specialist and TEDMED Editorial Advisory Board member Celine Gounder will lead this Meetup conversation examining the systems necessary to address pandemic threats – from global vaccine uptake to the development of novel therapies to deprive infectious disease.

Novel Approaches to Big Problems, A Health Equity Conversation
Hosted by RWJF and facilitated by Aletha Maybank, an RWJF Health Equity Expert
Speakers: Cheryl King, Francis X. Shen, and Thomas Abt
Description: Big problems require big solutions. The speakers in this Meetup are developing and implementing big, novel solutions to some of society’s most serious issues. From curbing the rising rates of teen suicide, to fighting for justice in the legal system, to reducing urban violence, these individuals are committed to saving the lives of some of our most vulnerable populations. Aletha Maybank, the AMA’s Chief Health Equity Office, will guide the conversation and help us to understand how equity plays a key role in finding solutions to these issues.

A Vision for a Healthier Future
Hosted by Geisinger and facilitated by Geisinger Leadership
Speakers: Fred Moll, Gokul Upadhyayula, and Suchi Saria
Description: We live in a world where robotics, bioimaging, and machine learning are becoming increasingly common terms. This Meetup will explore the possibilities of constantly emerging technologies with capabilities to transform healthcare tools as we currently know them. Geisinger will lead this Meetup discussion about the role of technology in creating a healthier future.

Science and Storytelling
Hosted by the TEDMED Community and facilitated by Nadja Oertelt, TEDMED EAB Member and TEDMED 2017 Hive Innovator
Speakers: Amit Choudhary, Michel Maharbiz, Zuberoa Marcos
Description: Whether it’s conveying the nuances and implications of a tool as powerful as CRISPR, understanding molecular and physiological states, or harnessing the power of storytelling in presenting scientific advances to keep the world moving forward, how we tell the story of science is integral to reaching and inspiring a broad audience and making the impact needed to shape a healthier humanity. Nadja Oertelt, TEDMED 2017 Hive Innovator and Co-Founder of Massive Science, facilitates this conversation about science and storytelling.

David Asch on Behavioral Economics and Health: Designing Health Programs for Real People

At TEDMED 2018 David Asch shared how he advances individual and population health by improving how physicians and patients make decisions in health care and in everyday life, including the use of medical treatments and personal health behaviors. Watch his Talk “Why it’s so hard make healthy decisions” and read his blog post below to understand more about the role irrationality and predictability play in decision making and why behavioral economics is such a powerful tool in health.

Health programs are more likely to be successful if they reflect how real people make real decisions.

If everyone did what was in his or her own best interest, no one would smoke, everyone would wear seatbelts, and most people would skip dessert. The simple observation that plenty of people do things that they know in their hearts isn’t good for them is partly a story about the limits of human willpower. It’s also a story about the trap of assuming that people are rational. We fall into that trap when we believe that helping people understand how to improve their health is enough to help them actually improve their health. Often it isn’t. We often do things that compete with our own best interest not because we don’t know what to do, but because even though we know what to do, we don’t do it.

Do any of these examples sound like you?

Sally is at an event where chocolate cake is served for dessert. Sally knows that the cake will throw her off her diet, but it is right in front of her, and it looks so luscious and, well, the diet can take a break until tomorrow…

Joe knows that regularly taking his high blood pressure medication is one of the best ways to avoid the kind of devastating stroke that dramatically changed his father’s life. But as he heads to bed for the evening and realizes he didn’t take his medication, he decides not to turn around and head back to the medicine cabinet…

Sally and Joe have present bias—meaning that they pay more attention to the outcomes that are right in front of them (like that chocolate cake) than the even-more-important outcomes that are in the future (like losing weight). They aren’t alone. I have present bias, and so do we all.

Consider Reggie:

Reggie buys a lottery ticket on his way to work every day, and he always plays the same number. He dreams about what he’d do if he won, and although the odds are small, people win all the time. And he never misses a day because what if his number came up on just the day he missed buying a ticket!

Like Reggie, each of us sometimes overestimates small chances—focusing on the outcome rather than its likelihood. And each of us sometimes has regret aversion: we hate that feeling of missing out, that life would have been better if only we had done things differently. If only we had bought that stock when it was low. We all feel this way sometimes, just like we all overestimate small chances, and all focus too much on the present and not enough on the future.

Sally, Joe, and Reggie are not behaving in ways that best help them achieve their goals. But they are making the mistakes we all make.

So why do we continue to design tepid health programs based on a belief that people will do as they should? We do so because our first assumption is that people will behave with their own best interests in mind—that they will behave rationally. But often, we are irrational.

Behavioral economics is based on this recognition. We don’t always do what is in our own best interest. Our decisions are subject to emotion, to framing, to social context. But the key contribution of behavioral economics is recognizing we are irrational in highly predictable ways. It is the predictability of our psychological foibles that allows us to design strategies to overcome them. Forewarned is forearmed.

That’s why behavioral economics is such a powerful tool in health. For example, we can use behavioral economics to help people take their medications as prescribed. Perhaps we offer rewards to help them to do so—making the benefits of taking medicine seem relevant today, unlike the potential avoidance of a stroke years down the line. We can set up rewards in lottery formats because the difficulty interpreting small probabilities makes lottery incentives even more potent. We can make patients eligible for rewards only if they took their medicine the day before, harnessing the human tendency to avoid regret.

These approaches work because they see past how we would like people to make decisions and toward how they actually do so. They work because they hitch our health care wagon to the behaviors and mental approaches we already follow. They make the right choice the easy choice because they harness our own, predictable, irrationality instead of trying to compete with it.

Food can fix it! – A non-foodie´s journey to save the world, starting at the plate

Written and submitted by Gunhild Stordalen

This guest blog post is by Gunhild Stordalen, co-founder of The Stordalen Foundation and initiator of the Eat Forum. Gunhild spoke on the TEDMED stage in 2016, and you can watch her talk here.


I am an environmentalist at heart, but a medical doctor by education. Life takes some strange turns sometimes, and in 2009 I found myself serving on the board of one of Scandinavia´s largest hotel companies. There, I started looking for ways to reduce the hotel´s environmental impact as well as to improve the health of guests and employees. Quickly, my eyes focused on food.

Photo credit: Linus Sundahl-Djerf
Gunhild and EAT have hosted several events during the UN General Assembly. In 2016 they led a discussion on urban food systems. Learn more here.

In an average hotel, food and drinks account for as much as 70% of the environmental footprint. Additionally, what we put on hotel restaurant menus can have a huge impact on human health. My question was therefore: “What food could we serve that would be healthier for people, better for the climate and better for the environment?”

I searched the literature, read reports and called experts everywhere. I found lots of papers published on health and nutrition, climate-smart agriculture, organic food and biodiversity. But I found literally nothing that could answer my simple question: “What types of food are both healthy and environmentally sustainable?”

Not being able to find a healthy and sustainable menu solution for some 190 Nordic hotels was quite frustrating. But the fact that no one had the answer for how to sustainably feed a healthy diet to our growing population was straight up shocking!

What we eat and how we produce it is already causing some of our greatest health and environmental challenges. While almost 800 million people are getting too little food, more than 2 billion are getting too much, which causes them to become either overweight or obese. Another 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Increasingly, poor diets are posing a bigger threat to global health than tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

At the same time, the agricultural sector is the single biggest driver of both climate change and environmental degradation. It causes more than 30% of the planet’s loss in biodiversity and consumes 70% of the world´s fresh water. The meat industry alone is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world´s cars, planes and ships combined. And, around one third of all food we produce is either lost or wasted.

Today, we produce enough calories to feed everyone, but those calories are unequally distributed and hugely inefficient. With business as usual, current population growth and diets trend toward more meat and animal-sourced foods; feeding the world’s population will mean increasing food production 50% by 2050.

There is no way we will reach the Paris Climate Agreement or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals without a radical shift in the way we eat and produce our food. Getting it right on food is our great opportunity to get a lot right for both the health of people and the planet.

In 2013, I founded the EAT initiative with professor Johan Rockstrom and the Stockholm Resilience Center as our main academic partner. Last year, British research charity Wellcome Trust joined us, and together we established EAT Foundation. Gathering international leaders from science, politics, business and civil society, EAT is a global platform that aims to help speed up food systems transformation. Through our partnerships and collaborations, we create pathways and measures to make healthy and sustainable food choices accessible, affordable and convenient—for everybody, everywhere.

Photo credit: Linus Sundahl Djer
The EAT Stockholm Food Forum gathers leaders from science, business, politics and civil society, including chefs and activists. At last year´s conference, Jamie Oliver and Gunhild joined forces to get more food professionals involved in a healthy and sustainable food revolution.

I am a hard-core optimist. Even more so after seeing the rapidly growing awareness on the interlinkages between food, health and sustainability challenges in just these four years since I started EAT. I meet business leaders, investors, politicians, UN agencies and consumer organizations that are all ready for change, and I am thrilled to see healthy, green initiatives and innovations popping up everywhere!

Together, we can fix the food system! Of course, significant work still remains, from setting science-based targets to creating coherent policies, and in implementing new business models that are “all good” and not only “less bad”. But right now, the bottlenecks are not lack of evidence, lack of political will or lack of technology. The main obstacles are lack of collaboration and co-creation. I started EAT to connect the dots. That’s why I am proud to work with leaders and game-changers that work together for a healthier, happier and more prosperous future for all.

I´ve never been a foodie. To be honest, I can hardly cook. But I love food because it represents the closest thing we will get to a silver bullet for healthy people on a healthy planet. Whether you are the most powerful man in the world, sit on the board of a hotel chain or you simply prepare dinners for your family and friends, we all have a role to play. What better way to bring people together for a better world than over great food!

Emotional Well-Being is the Missing Key to Better Health

This guest blog post is by Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General and TEDMED 2015 speaker. You can watch his TEDMED talk here.


Imagine if there was a force in your life that could reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, that could help you live longer, that could make your children less likely to use drugs and engage in crime, and that could even help you lose weight.

It turns out, it is not a new prescription medication or medical procedure. The force I’m talking about is emotional well-being.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking at TEDMED 2015.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking at TEDMED 2015.

Emotional well-being is the often overlooked counterpart to physical well-being. Emotional well-being is about much more than the absence of mental illness in the same way that physical well-being is about more than the absence of injury or disease. Commonly thought of as happiness, emotional well-being is a powerful resource within each of us that can reduce our risk of illness, improve our performance, and enable us to be resilient in the face of adversity. Emotional well-being is what can make the difference between surviving and thriving.

It might be tempting to assume that emotional well-being is solely a consequence of our circumstances. We may tell ourselves that we’ll be happy if we get the promotion we want, make more money, or lose some weight. This is not to say that circumstances don’t matter. They do. In particular, external factors such as poverty, violence, and poor access to health care have a real impact on health and well-being – and we must do everything we can to address them. But science tells us that there are also internal factors that influence emotional well-being and that we can in fact proactively cultivate emotional well-being using tools that are surprisingly simple and relatively inexpensive.

We can cultivate emotional well-being with physical exercise, which research shows can improve mood and outlook as well as reduce depression. Contemplative practices like gratitude exercises and meditation have also been shown to improve emotional well-being, as has getting an adequate amount of sleep.

Perhaps one of the most powerful tools for improving emotional well-being is social connection – the presence of genuine, strong, relationships where one feels known and supported. Despite the ubiquity of social media, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. Helping people find and build meaningful relationships is one way to improve emotional well-being. The good news is there are a growing number of communities that have begun to invest in improving emotional well-being and are seeing remarkable results.

sg-visitacion-valley-msOne example is Visitacion Valley Middle School in California.  The school is located in a community where violence is prevalent.  The majority of the students come from economically-challenged families. Many have one or both parents in prison.  Several years ago, suspension rates were high, academic performance was low and anxiety and trauma were commonplace.  Desperate to do something, the school teamed up with the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education to develop a voluntary “Quiet Time” program for students – that included the option to practice 15 minutes of meditation, twice a day. In the first year alone, there was a 45% reduction in suspensions, teacher absenteeism dropped by 30%, grades and test scores went up, and the students reported less anxiety and fewer sleep disturbances. The program has since been expanded to more schools, with promising results.

Emotional well-being is a relatively untapped resource that has the potential to transform our health. It can help us build resilience, enhance productivity, and shift our mindsets away from fear and pessimism toward peace and possibility – a shift that is increasingly necessary and urgent in today’s world.

Imagine if we prioritized emotional well-being as much as test scores in schools. Imagine if cultivating emotional well-being was seen as a priority in our workplaces. Imagine if emotional well-being was understood by all our policymakers to be the fuel that enables us to be healthy, productive, and strong.

The question is: can we make the cultivation of emotional well-being a priority that is reflected in our culture, our policies, and each of our lives? For the sake of our health and the health of future generations, we must ensure the answer is “yes.”

Illuminating the importance of light design

This is a guest blog post by Mariana Figueiro, Light and Health Program Director at the Lighting Research Center (LRC) and Associate Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her talk at TEDMED 2014 reveals, surprising facts about the effect of light – its presence, its absence, and its patterns – on human health.

Mariana Figueiro
“We are all swimming in a sea of light” – Mariana Figueiro at TEDMED 2014

All creatures, great and small, are governed by the natural 24-hour, light-dark cycle. Every cell and physiological system in plants and animals exhibits a circadian cycle. In the absence of a regular 24-hour light-dark cycle, a circadian cycle in humans runs with a period close to, but not exactly, 24 hours. Daily exposures to morning light, especially blue light, reset the timing of our biological clock and synchronize our circadian rhythms to the local sunrise and sunset. Disruption of these circadian rhythms resulting from exposure to irregular light-dark patterns or exposure to light at the wrong time of day can compromise health. For example, it has been shown in animal models that circadian disruption is linked to increased risk for diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and even cancer.1-5  Therefore, receiving the right light at the right time can be the key to good sleep, good health and wellbeing. We are swimming in an ocean of light, but like fish that take water for granted, we generally pay little attention to our environmental light. Light is the conductor of our internal symphony, influencing when we sleep and wake, our cognitive abilities, how much we eat, and even how well our medicine works.6-8

Recognizing the impact of light on the individual and on a global scale, the United Nations has proclaimed 2015 as the International Year of Light, citing that light plays a vital role in our daily lives, has revolutionized medicine, and that light-based technologies promote sustainable development and provide solutions to global challenges in energy, education, agriculture and health.

Just last year, the Nobel Prize in Physics was presented to the inventors of the blue LED, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura.

At the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we focus on the myriad effects of light on human health at all ages. We are working on developing a lighting system that can be used with premature infant incubators in the NICU to provide cycled lighting, which has been shown to improve health outcomes in premature infants. We are also investigating effective ways to deliver light as a treatment to improve sleep, depression and agitation in Alzheimer patients.

Beyond the long-term health benefits of synchronizing our circadian rhythms to the local time on Earth, light has an acute effect, an alerting boost, like a cup of coffee, which can help give us the energy we need when we wake up in the morning and also help to fight the post-lunch dip. We are trying to figure out how red light impacts alertness and performance during the day and at night. This could benefit shift workers, because red light can increase alertness without affecting melatonin levels. The suppression of melatonin by light at night has been implicated in health problems such as breast cancer in these shift workers.

The newly constructed 24-hour lighting scheme demonstration room at LRC provides cycled electric lighting with cool, high light levels during the day and warm, low levels at night. Construction of the room was made possible through funding and donations from the Light & Health Alliance, led by Dr. Figueiro. Light & Health Alliance members are Acuity Brands, Ketra, OSRAM Sylvania, Philips Lighting, Sharp, and USAI Lighting.
The newly constructed 24-hour lighting scheme demonstration room at LRC provides cycled electric lighting with cool, high light levels during the day and warm, low levels at night. Construction of the room was made possible through funding and donations from the Light & Health Alliance, led by Dr. Figueiro. Light & Health Alliance members are Acuity Brands, Ketra, OSRAM Sylvania, Philips Lighting, Sharp, and USAI Lighting.

Aside from the special light needs of these select populations, there is every reason to believe that introducing a regular 24-hour pattern of light and dark by modifying the amount of electric lighting we are exposed to daily, could improve the health and productivity of everyone. We are currently looking at the impact of artificial light and natural daylight on the health and wellbeing of federal employees working in buildings owned and leased by the U.S. General Services Administration. To further study this question in the home environment, we are also developing a lighting system that could be incorporated into the design of Swedish homes. The availability of daylight in Sweden during winter months is very limited, and so we are designing a “healthy home” using lighting principles that will promote health and wellbeing not only in Swedish homes, but in other places where daylight availability is limited. The system will provide cycled electric lighting with cool, high light levels during the day and warm, low levels at night. This type of cycled lighting is ideal for circadian health, encouraging restful sleep at night and increased alertness and performance during the day – not to mention many other general health benefits, such as improved mood and reduced risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer.1-5, 9 DSC03686

An important component of the healthy home concept is the “Daysimeter” – a personal circadian light measurement device. The Daysimeter measures how much circadian light an individual receives over a 24-hour period, and then via smartphone it automatically adjusts lighting in the home and office to provide the ideal type of light needed to support health and wellbeing.

Imagine wearing this small, unobtrusive device, that would measure a dark, snowy day in January with little or no circadian-effective light, and then adjust the lighting in the morning to provide cool, high light levels to entrain you to the 24-hour solar day and give you an alerting boost of energy. In the afternoon, light levels would be adjusted based on how much light was received during the day, as measured by the Daysimeter. In the evening, the lighting would automatically adjust to provide warm, low levels of soothing light to ensure restful sleep. Thanks to advances in LED technology, the healthy home of the future could realistically happen in the next decade. We have developed the 24-hour lighting scheme and Daysimeter and have completed extensive testing in the lab and in the field, and are now working to study the real-world effects of this lighting scheme with people living their normal, daily lives. Today, many people think of light as just part of a building. In the future, we believe light will become more personalized, customizable, and tailored to the needs of each individual. Perhaps 2015 is the year that we will see the world in a new light.

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Watch Mariana’s talk from TEDMED 2014