Rest-activity rhythms characteristics and seasonal changes in seasonal affective disorder

Identifying objectively measurable seasonal changes in 24-h activity patterns (rest-activity rhythms or RARs) that occur in seasonal affective disorder (SAD) could help guide research and practice towards new monitoring tools or prevention targets. We quantified RARs from actigraphy data using non-parametric and extended cosine based approaches, then compared RARs between people with SAD and healthy controls in the summer (n = 70) and winter seasons (n = 84). We also characterized the within-person seasonal RAR changes that occurred in the SAD (n = 19) and control (n = 26) participants who contributed repeated measures. Only controls had significant winter increases in RAR fragmentation (intra-daily variability; in controls mean winter-summer changes (log scale) = 0.05, 0.21 standard deviation, p = 0.03). In SAD participants only, estimated evening settling times (down-mesor) were an average of 30 min earlier in the winter compared with the summer (1-h standard deviation, p = 0.045). These RAR characteristics correlated with greater fatigue (Spearman r = 0.36) but not depression symptom severity. Additional research is needed to ascertain why healthy controls, but not people with SAD, appear to have increased RAR fragmentation in the winter. People with SAD lacked this increase in RAR fragmentation, and instead had earlier evening setting in the winter. Prospective and intervention studies with greater temporal resolution are warranted to ascertain how these seasonal behavioral differences relate to fatigue pathophysiology in SAD. Future research is needed to determine whether extending the winter active period, even in relatively fragmented bouts, could help reduce the fatigue symptoms common in SAD.