Russell Foster
An understanding of the neuroscience of sleep is really informing the way we think about some of the causes of mental illness, and indeed is providing us new ways to treat these incredibly debilitating conditions.

Science & Medicine Pioneer

Russell Foster

Circadian Neuroscience, University of Oxford

Russell Foster is a professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford, where he also heads the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology and the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute.


Foster’s research focuses on both visual and circadian neurobiology, and mainly on the mechanisms whereby light regulates circadian rhythms in humans and other vertebrates and what happens when these systems break down as a result of disease and under abnormal environmental conditions. The Nuffield Laboratory is currently the only research group in Europe, and one of very few in the world, where the dual functions of the eye — as both a receptor organ for vision and for the regulation of sleep and circadian rhythms — are being studied side by side.

One of Foster’s most groundbreaking findings was the discovery in mice of a specialized class of photoreceptors within the eye called photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (pRGCs). These pRGCs regulate not only circadian rhythms, but also sleep and arousal states, heart rate, and pupil constriction. The discovery is credited with redefining the mammalian biological response to light.

Some of Foster’s more recent work focuses on examining the intersection between sleep and mental illness. His group published a study in the Journal of Neural Transmission revealing a surprising connection between the genes linked to schizophrenia and the genes that impact sleep. “Genes that have been shown to be very important in the generation of normal sleep, when mutated, when changed, also predispose individuals to mental health problems,” said Foster in his 2013 TED Talk, Why Do We Sleep? “In terms of the neuroscience, by understanding these two systems, we're really beginning to understand how both sleep and mental illness are generated and regulated within the brain,” he said.

Foster is also investigating the connection between shift work and a higher incidence of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease, and also the influence of light exposure on individual chronotypes, or the timing of activity within a 24-hour period.

In recognition of his research achievements, Foster has been awarded the Honma Prize (1997), the Zoological Society Scientific Medal (2000), the David G. Cogan Award (2001), and the Edrige-Green Medal (2005). In 2008, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 2015, he received the Order of Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for services to science. Foster has published over 250 scientific papers and has co-authored four popular science books, including Rhythms of Life, which documents the significance of the biological clock on our sleep patterns.