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An Overview of Sexual Differentiation of the Mammalian Nervous System and Behavior  

Ashley Monks

There is growing appreciation for the numerous and often dramatic differences in the nervous system of males and females and the importance of these sex differences for behavioral traits. Sex differences in the nervous system and behavior result from a process of sexual differentiation that is carried out by the interplay of genetic, hormonal, and environmental factors throughout the life span. Although the preponderance of mechanistic study of mammalian sexual differentiation has occurred in traditional laboratory rodents, this field of study has benefitted from comparative studies, which highlight the diversity in sexual polymorphism in vertebrates and also point to strongly conserved mechanisms whereby these sexually differentiated traits develop.


Autonomic Control of Immune Function  

Eric S. Wohleb

Proper immune function is critical to maintain homeostasis, recognize and eliminate pathogens, and promote tissue repair. Primary and secondary immune organs receive input from the autonomic nervous system and immune cells express receptors for epinephrine, norepinephrine, and/or acetylcholine. Through direct signaling the autonomic nervous system controls immune function by altering immune cell development, initiating redistribution of immune cells throughout the body, and promoting molecular pathways that shift immune cell reactivity. This neuroimmune communication allows the autonomic nervous system to shape immune function based on physiological and psychological demands.


Autonomic Regulation of Kidney Function  

Mohammed H. Abdulla and Edward J. Johns

A potential role for the renal innervation was first described in 1859 by Claude Bernard, who observed an increase in urine flow following section of the greater splanchnic nerve, which included the renal nerves. Subsequent studies provided little further clarity, leading Homer Smith in 1951 to declare that the renal innervation had little or no significance in controlling kidney hemodynamic or excretory function. However, since the 1960s, there has been increased attention to how the renal nerves may contribute to the deranged control of blood pressure and heart function cardiovascular diseases. The efferent (sympathetic) nerves have neuroeffector junctions which provide close contact with all vascular and tubular elements of the kidney. Activation of the sympathetic nerves at the resistance vessels, that is, the interlobular arteries afferent and even arterioles, modulates both renal blood flow and glomerular filtration rate; at the juxtaglomerular granular cells, they cause renin release and subsequent angiotensin II generation, and at the tubules there is a neurally stimulated increase in epithelial cell sodium transport. Less is known of the role of the afferent nerves, which primarily innervate the renal pelvis, and to a lesser degree the cortex and medulla. Their role is uncertain but sensory information passing to the brain can influence renal efferent nerve activity, forming the basis of both inhibitory and excitatory reno-renal reflexes. Increasingly, it is perceived that in a range of cardiovascular diseases such as cardiac failure, chronic renal disease, and hypertension, there is an inappropriate sympatho-excitation related to alterations in afferent renal nerve activity, which exacerbates the disease progression. The importance of the renal innervation in these disease processes has been emphasized in clinical studies where renal denervation in humans has been found to reduce blood pressure in resistant hypertensive patients and to ameliorate the progression of cardiac and kidney diseases, diabetes, and obesity and hypertension. The importance of both systemic and renal inflammatory responses in activating the neurohumoral control of the kidney is a continuing source of investigation.


Autonomic Regulation of Penile Erection  

K-E Andersson

Penile erection is a part of the human male sexual response, involving desire, excitation (erection), orgasm (ejaculation), and resolution, and autonomic nerves are involved in all phases. Autonomic innervation of smooth-muscle cells of the erectile tissue is provided by the cavernous nerve. Motor and sensory innervation is derived from the pudendal nerves and their terminal branches, that is, the dorsal nerves of the penis, which carry impulses from receptors harbored in the penile skin, prepuce, and glans. Erection begins with an increased flow in the pudendal arteries and dilatation of the cavernous arteries and helicine arterioles in association with relaxation of the smooth muscles of the trabecular network, causing engorgement of blood in the corpora. This leads to compression of subtunical venules by the resistant tunica albuginea and erection. During detumescence these events are reversed.


Autonomic Regulation of the Eye  

Paul J. May, Anton Reiner, and Paul D. Gamlin

The functions of the eye are regulated by and dependent upon the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system controls constriction of the iris and accommodation of the lens via a pathway with preganglionic motor neurons in the Edinger-Westphal nucleus and postganglionic motor neurons in the ciliary ganglion. The parasympathetic nervous system regulates choroidal blood flow and the production of aqueous humor through a pathway with preganglionic motor neurons in the superior salivatory nucleus and postganglionic motor neurons in the pterygopalatine (sphenopalatine) ganglion. The sympathetic nervous system controls dilation of the iris and may modulate the outflow of aqueous humor from the eye. The sympathetic preganglionic motor neurons lie in the intermediolateral cell column at the first level of the thoracic cord, and the postganglionic motor neurons are found in the superior cervical ganglion. The central pathways controlling different autonomic functions in the eye are found in a variety of locations within the central nervous system. The reflex response of the iris to changes in luminance levels begins with melanopsin-containing retinal ganglion cells in the retina that project to the olivary pretectal nucleus. This nucleus then projects upon the Edinger-Westphal preganglionic motoneurons. The dark response that produces maximal pupillary dilation involves the sympathetic pathways to the iris. Pupil size is also regulated by many other factors, but the pathways to the parasympathetic and sympathetic preganglionic motoneurons that underlie this are not well understood. Lens accommodation is controlled by premotor neurons located in the supraoculomotor area. These also regulate the pupil, and control vergence angle by modulating the activity of medial rectus, and presumably lateral rectus, motoneurons. Pathways from the frontal eye fields and cerebellum help regulate their activity. Blood flow in the choroid is regulated with respect to systemic blood pressure through pathways through the nucleus of the tractus solitarius. It is also regulated with respect to luminance levels, which likely involves the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which receives inputs from melanopsin-containing retinal ganglion cells, and other areas of the hypothalamus that project upon the parasympathetic preganglionic neurons of the superior salivatory nucleus that mediate choroidal vasodilation.


Autonomic Thermoregulation  

Thad E. Wilson and Kristen Metzler-Wilson

Thermoregulation is a key physiologic homeostatic process and is subdivided into autonomic, behavioral, and adaptive divisions. Autonomic thermoregulation is a neural process related to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Autonomic thermoregulation is controlled at the subcortical level to alter physiologic processes of heat production and loss to maintain internal temperature. Mammalian, including human, autonomic responses to acute heat or cold stresses are dependent on environmental conditions and species genotype and phenotype, but many similarities exist. Responses to an acute heat stress begin with the sensation of heat, leading to central processing of the information and sympathetic responses via end organs, which can include sweat glands, vasculature, and airway and cardiac tissues. Responses to an acute cold stress begin with the sensation of cold, which leads to central processing of the information and sympathetic responses via end organs, which can include skeletal and piloerector muscles, brown adipose tissue, vasculature, and cardiac tissue. These autonomic responses allow homeostasis of internal temperature to be maintained across a wide range of external temperatures for most mammals, including humans. At times, uncompensable thermal challenges occur that can be maintained for only limited periods of time before leading to pathophysiologic states of hyperthermia or hypothermia.


Behavioral Neuroendocrinology: Cognition  

Victoria Luine

The demonstration of steroid binding proteins in brain areas outside of the hypothalamus was a key neuroendocrine discovery in the 1980s. These findings suggested that gonadal hormones, estradiol and testosterone, may have additional functions besides controlling reproduction through the hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal axis (HPG) and that glucocorticoids may also influence neural functions not related to the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA). In the past 30 years, since the early 1990s, a body of neuroendocrine studies in animals has provided evidence for these hypotheses, and in 2020, it is generally accepted that steroid hormones exert robust influences over cognition—both learning and memory. Gonadal hormones, predominantly estrogens, enhance learning and memory in rodents and humans and influence cognitive processes throughout the lifespan. Gonadal hormones bind to classical nuclear estrogen receptors and to membrane receptors to influence cognition. In contrast to the generally positive effects of gonadal hormones on learning and memory, adrenal hormones (glucocorticoids in rodents or cortisol in primates) released during chronic stress have adverse effects on cognition, causing impairments in both learning and memory. However, emerging evidence suggests that impairments may be limited only to males, as chronic stress in females does not usually impair cognition and, in many cases, enhances it. The cognitive resilience of females to stress may result from interactions between the HPG and HPA axis, with estrogens exerting neuroprotective effects against glucocorticoids at both the morphological and neurochemical level. Overall, knowledge of the biological underpinnings of hormonal effects on cognitive function has enormous implications for human health and well-being by providing novel tools for mitigating memory loss, for treating stress-related disorders, and for understanding the bases for resilience versus susceptibility to stress.


Behavioral Neuroendocrinology of Female Aggression  

Natalia Duque-Wilckens and Brian C. Trainor

Aggressive behavior plays an essential role in survival and reproduction across animal species—it has been observed in insects, fish, reptiles, and mammals including humans. Even though specific aggressive behaviors are quite heterogeneous across species, many of the underlying mechanisms modulating aggression are highly conserved. For example, in a variety of species arginine vasopressin (AVP) and its homologue vasotocin in the hypothalamus, play an important role in regulating aggressive behaviorssuch as territorial and inter male aggression. Similarly in the medial amygdala, activation of a subpopulation of GABAergic neurons promotes aggression, while the prefrontal cortex exerts inhibitory control over aggressive behaviors. An important caveat in the aggression literature is that it is focused primarily on males, probably because in most species males are more aggressive than females. However, female aggression is also highly prevalent in many contexts, as it can affect access to resources such as mates, food, and offspring survival. Although it is likely that many underlying mechanisms are shared between sexes, there is sex specific variation in aggression, type, magnitude, and contexts, which suggests that there are important sex differences in how aggression is regulated. For example, while AVP acts to modulate aggression in both male and female hamsters, it increases male aggression but decreases female aggression. These differences can occur at the extent of neurotransmitter or hormones release, sensitivity (i.e., receptor expression), and/or molecular responses.


Cardiac Vagal Tone and Stress  

Kevin T. Larkin, Alaina G. Tiani, and Leah A. Brown

Based on its distinctive innervation between the brain and body, the vagal nerve has long been considered to play an important role in explaining how exposure to stress leads to numerous psychiatric disorders and cardiac diseases. In contrast to activation of the sympathetic nervous system during exposures to stress, the vagal nerve is responsible for parasympathetic regulation of visceral activity including cardiac functioning that often but not always co-occurs during periods of stress. Although methods exist to measure vagal nerve influences on the heart directly, most of the literature on both human and animal participants’ responses to stress employs the measurement of heart rate variability (HRV). HRV, the tendency for the heart rate to increase and decrease in adaptation to the changing physiological and external environment, can be easily detected using surface electrodes; several HRV parameters have been shown to be valid indicators of parasympathetic nerve activity. Theories of the evolutionary heritage of the vagal nerve, like Porges’ polyvagal theory and the subsequent neurovisceral integration perspective of Thayer and colleagues that traces the autonomic regulation of the heart into higher cortical regions, have served as important conceptual works to guide empirical work examining the effects of stress on both tonic and phasic vagal activity. A number of methodological approaches have been employed to evaluate whether exposure to stress affects vagal tone, including use of animal models, case-control samples of humans exposed to stressful living situations, and samples of humans diagnosed with a range of psychiatric disorders. Findings from studies comprising this literature support a relation between exposure to stress and reduced cardiac vagal tone. Both humans and animals typically exhibit reductions in daily HRV when exposed to a range of stressful situations or contexts. The relation between stress and phasic alterations in vagal functioning, the magnitude of the acute change in HRV in response to an acute stressor, is more complicated, likely involving significant moderating variables that have yet to be elucidated. In sum, considerable evidence supports an important neuroregulatory role of the vagal nerve in modulating the body’s response to environmental stress and potentially serving as an avenue for understanding how exposure to stress increases risk for psychiatric disorders as well as cardiovascular disease.


Central Mechanisms Regulating Coordinated Cardiovascular and Respiratory Function  

Roger Dampney

In response to changes in metabolic demand, the cardiovascular and respiratory systems are regulated in a highly coordinated fashion, such that both ventilation and cardiac output increase in a parallel fashion, thus maintaining a relatively constant level of arterial blood PO2, PCO2, and pH. In addition, external alerting stimuli that trigger defensive or orienting behavioral responses also trigger coordinated cardiorespiratory changes that are appropriate for the particular behavior. Furthermore, environmental challenges such as hypoxia or submersion evoke complex cardiovascular and respiratory response that have the effect of increasing oxygen uptake and/or conserving the available oxygen. The brain mechanisms that are responsible for generating coordinated cardiorespiratory responses can be divided into reflex mechanisms and feedforward (central command) mechanisms. Reflexes that regulate cardiorespiratory function arise from a wide variety of internal receptors, and include those that signal changes in blood pressure, the level of blood oxygenation, respiratory activity, and metabolic activity. In most cases more than one reflex is activated, so that the ultimate cardiorespiratory response depends upon the interaction between different reflexes. The essential central pathways that subserve these reflexes are largely located within the brainstem and spinal cord, although they can be powerfully modulated by descending inputs arising from higher levels of the brain. The brain defense mechanisms that regulate the cardiorespiratory responses to external threatening stimuli (e.g., the sight, sound, or odor of a predator) are highly complex, and include both subcortical and cortical systems. The subcortical system, which includes the basal ganglia and midbrain colliculi as essential components, is phylogenetically ancient and generates immediate coordinated cardiorespiratory and motor responses to external stimuli. In contrast, the defense system that includes the cortex, hypothalamus, and limbic system evolved at a later time, and is better adapted to generating coordinated responses to external stimuli that involve cognitive appraisal.


Development of Lung Innervation  

Talita de Melo e Silva, Catherine Miriam Czeisler, and José Javier Otero

Breathing is essential for survival and is precisely regulated by the nervous system. From a neuroanatomical perspective, the respiratory tract is innervated by afferent and efferent autonomic nerves, which regulate aspects of airway function and ensure appropriate tissue oxygenation. The general concepts of how the peripheral nervous system (PNS) develops as it relates to lung function are reviewed. The vagus (cranial nerve X), a mixed motor and sensory nerve, supplies parasympathetic and sensory fibers to the airways. During development, preganglionic visceromotor efferent neurons of the cranial nerves arise in the hindbrain basal plate and later migrate dorsally through the neuroepithelium. The neural crest is a migratory and multipotent embryonic cell population that develops at the dorsal portion of the neural tube, which delaminates from the neuroepithelium to enter distinct pathways, forming various derivatives, among which include the peripheral nervous system. Neural crest cells emerging from the vagal region migrate into the ventral foregut and give rise to intrinsic ganglia in the respiratory tract that are innervated from the vagus and send out postganglionic fibers. The lung is innervated by sympathetic nerves derived from the upper thoracic and cervical ganglia. The sympathetic preganglionic neurons are derived from trunk neural crest cells that migrate, forming two chains of sympathetic ganglia referred to as the lateral vertebral sympathetic chains. Neural crest cells that migrate along defined pathways to generate sympathetic ganglia also derivate the dorsal root ganglia that send somatosensory afferent innervations to the respiratory tract.


Hormones and Animal Communication  

Eliot A. Brenowitz

Animals produce communication signals to attract mates and deter rivals during their breeding season. The coincidence in timing results from the modulation of signaling behavior and neural activity by sex steroid hormones associated with reproduction. Adrenal steroids can influence signaling for aggressive interactions outside the breeding season. Androgenic and estrogenic hormones act on brain circuits that regulate the motivation to produce and respond to signals, the motor production of signals, and the sensory perception of signals. Signal perception, in turn, can stimulate gonadal development.


The Hypocretin Arousal Network  

Jeremy C. Borniger and Luis de Lecea

The hypocretins (also known as orexins) are selectively expressed in a subset of lateral hypothalamic neurons. Since the reports of their discovery in 1998, they have been intensely investigated in relation to their role in sleep/wake transitions, feeding, reward, drug abuse, and motivated behavior. This research has cemented their role as a subcortical relay optimized to tune arousal in response to various salient stimuli. This article reviews their discovery, physiological modulation, circuitry, and integrative functionality contributing to vigilance state transitions and stability. Specific emphasis is placed on humoral and neural inputs regulating hcrt neural function and new evidence for an autoimmune basis of the sleep disorder narcolepsy. Future directions for this field involve dissection of the heterogeneity of this neural population using single-cell transcriptomics, optogenetic, and chemogenetics, as well as monitoring population and single cell activity. Computational models of the hypocretin network, using the “flip-flop” or “integrator neuron” frameworks, provide a fundamental understanding of how this neural population influences brain-wide activity and behavior.


Hypothalamic Control of Female Reproduction  

Brian P. Kenealy and Ei Terasawa

Female reproduction is an interplay between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and ovaries. While the gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) neuron in the hypothalamus regulates gonadal function through the pituitary, GnRH neuronal activity is also profoundly influenced by ovarian steroid hormones. GnRH is released from GnRH neurons in a pulsatile manner after integration of a diverse array of internal and external milieus. Since the discovery of the mammalian GnRH molecule, over a dozen GnRH forms have been identified in the animal kingdom, and large numbers of publications in various lab animal and human studies suggest that GnRH neurons are regulated by multiple neuromodulators in the brain, such as kisspeptin, neurokinin B, β-dynorphin, neuropeptide Y, GnIH, GABA, glutamate, and glial factors. A recent emerging concept is that steroids synthesized locally in the hypothalamus, namely, neuroestradiol and neuroprogesterone, also contribute to the regulation of GnRH neuronal activity, and hence female reproduction. Together with modulation by various inputs and ovarian steroid feedback, GnRH neurons are responsible for puberty, cyclic ovulation, and menopause.


Inflammatory Signals and Sexual Differentiation of the Brain  

Margaret M. McCarthy

Sex differences in the brain are established by the differential gonadal steroid hormonal milieu experienced by developing male and female fetuses and newborns. Androgen production by the testis starts in males prior to birth resulting in a brief developmental window during which the brain is exposed to high levels of steroid. Androgens and aromatized estrogens program the developing brain toward masculinized physiology and behavior that is then manifest in adulthood. In rodents, the perinatal programming of sex-specific adult mating behavior provides a model system for exploring the mechanistic origins of brain sex differences. Microglia are resident in the brain and provide innate immunity. Previously considered restricted to response to injury, these cells are now thought to be major contributors to the sculpting of developing neural circuits. This role extends to being an important component of the sexual differentiation process and has opened the door for exploration into myriad other aspects of neuroimmunity and inflammation as possible determinants of sex differences. In humans, males are at greater risk for more frequent and/or more severe neuropsychiatric and neurological disorders of development, many of which include prenatal inflammation as an additional risk factor. Emerging clinical and preclinical evidence suggests male brains experience a higher inflammatory tone early in development, and this may have its origins in the maternal immune system. Collectively, these disparate observations coalesce into a coherent picture in which brain development diverges in males versus females due to a combination of gonadal steroid action and neuroinflammation, and the latter increases the risk to males of developmental disorders.


Integration of Peripheral and Central Systems in Control of Ingestive and Reproductive Behavior  

Jill E. Schneider

During the evolution of animals, survival and reproduction depended upon mechanisms that maintained internal homeostasis in the face of environmental change. These environmental changes included fluctuations in ambient temperature, food availability, humidity, day length, and population density. Most, if not all, of these variables have effects on the availability of energy, and most vertebrate species have mechanisms that sense energy availability and adjust behavioral priorities accordingly. For example, when the availability of food and potential mating partners is stable and abundant, brain mechanisms often inhibit ingestive behavior, increase energy expenditure, and give priority to courtship and mating. In response to severe energy shortages, brain mechanisms are likely to stimulate foraging, food hoarding, and overeating. These same deficits often delay reproductive development or inhibit adult reproductive behavior. Such adaptations involve the integration of sensory signals with peripheral hormone signals and central effectors, and they are key to understanding health and disease, particularly obesity, eating disorders, and diabetes. The link between energy balance and reproduction recurs repeatedly, whether in the context of the sensory-somatic system, the autonomic nervous system, or the neuroendocrine cascades. Peripheral signals that are detected by receptors on vagal and splanchnic nerves are relayed to the caudal hindbrain. This brain area contains the effectors for peripheral hormone secretion and for chewing and swallowing, and this same brain area contains receptors for humoral and metabolic signals from peripheral circulation. The caudal hindbrain is therefore a strong candidate for integration of multiple signals that control the initiation of meals, meal size, energy storage, and energy expenditure, including the energy expended on reproduction. There are some differences between the reproductive and ingestive mechanisms, but there are also many striking similarities. There are still gaps in our knowledge about the nature and location of metabolic receptors and the pathways to their effectors. Some of the most promising research is designed to shed light on how hormonal signals might be enhanced or modulated by the peripheral energetic condition (e.g., the level of oxidizable metabolic fuels).


Maternal Behavior From a Neuroendocrine Perspective  

Danielle S. Stolzenberg, Kimberly L. Hernandez-D'Anna, Oliver J. Bosch, and Joseph S. Lonstein

For female mammals, caring for young until weaning or even longer is an extension of the reproductive burden that begins at insemination. Given the high price females potentially pay for failing to transmit genetic material to future generations, a multitude of interacting endocrine, neuroendocrine, and other neurochemical determinants are in place to ensure competent maternal caregiving by the time the offspring are born. Achieving this high maternal competency at parturition seems effortless but is quite a feat given that many nulliparous and parentally inexperienced female mammals are more prone to ignore, if not outright harm, conspecific neonates. There are important roles for ovarian steroids (e.g., estradiol and progesterone), adrenal steroids (e.g., glucocorticoids), and neuropeptide hormones (e.g., prolactin, oxytocin, arginine-vasopressin, and corticotropin-releasing factor) released during pregnancy, parturition, and postpartum in the onset and maintenance of caregiving behaviors in a broad range of commonly studied animals including rats, mice, rabbits, sheep, and primates. It is especially remarkable that the same collection of hormones influences caregiving similarly across these diverse animals, although to varying degrees. In addition to the well-known effects of hormones and neuropeptides on motherhood, more recent research indicates that experience-dependent epigenetic effects are also powerful modulators of the same neural substrates that can influence maternal responding.


Membrane-Initiated Estradiol Signaling in the Central Nervous System  

Paul E. Micevych and Melinda A. Mittelman-Smith

In the last two decades of the 20th century, key findings in the field of estrogen signaling completely changed our understanding of hormones: first, steroidogenesis was demonstrated in the CNS; second, a vast majority of cells in the nervous system were shown to have estrogen receptors; third, a second nuclear estrogen receptor (ERß) was cloned; and finally, “nuclear” receptors were shown to be present and functional in the cell membrane. Shortly thereafter, even more membrane estrogen receptors were discovered. Steroids (estrogens, in particular) began to be considered as neurotransmitters and their receptors were tethered to G protein-coupled receptor signaling cascades. In some parts of the brain, levels of steroids appeared to be independent of those found in the circulation and yet, circulating steroids had profound actions on the brain physiology. In this review, we discuss the interaction of peripheral and central estrogen action in the context of female reproduction—one of the best-studied aspects of steroid action. In addition to reviewing the evidence for steroidogenesis in the hypothalamus, we review membrane-localized nuclear receptors coupling to G protein-signaling cascades and the downstream physiological consequences for reproduction. We will also introduce newer work that demonstrates cell signaling for a common splice variant of estrogen receptor-α (ERα), and membrane action of neuroprogesterone in regulating estrogen positive feedback.


Mineralocorticoid Receptors and Glucocorticoid Receptors in HPA Stress Responses During Coping and Adaptation  

Edo Ronald de Kloet and Marian Joëls

The glucocorticoid hormones cortisol and corticosterone coordinate circadian events and are master regulators of the stress response. These actions of the glucocorticoids are mediated by mineralocorticoid receptors (NR3C2, or MRs) and glucocorticoid receptors (NR3C1, or GRs). MRs bind the natural glucocorticoids cortisol and corticosterone with a 10-fold higher affinity than GRs. The glucocorticoids are inactivated only in the nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS), rendering the NTS-localized MRs aldosterone-selective and involved in regulation of salt appetite. Everywhere else in the brain MRs are glucocorticoid-preferring. MR and GR are transcription factors involved in gene regulation but recently were also found to mediate rapid non-genomic actions. Genomic MRs, with a predominant localization in limbic circuits, are important for the threshold and sensitivity of the stress response system. Non-genomic MRs promote appraisal processes, memory retrieval, and selection of coping style. Activation of GRs makes energy substrates available and dampens initial defense reactions. In the brain, GR activation enhances appetitive- and fear-motivated behavior and promotes memory storage of the selected coping style in preparation of the future. Thus, MRs and GRs complement each other in glucocorticoid control of the initiation and termination of the stress response, suggesting that the balance in MR- and GR-mediated actions is crucial for homeostasis and health.


Molecular Biology and Physiology of Circadian Clocks  

Ruifeng Cao

Circadian rhythm is the approximately 24-hour rhythmicity that regulates physiology and behavior in a variety of organisms. The mammalian circadian system is organized in a hierarchical manner. Molecular circadian oscillations driven by genetic feedback loops are found in individual cells, whereas circadian rhythms in different systems of the body are orchestrated by the master clock in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the anterior hypothalamus. SCN receives photic input from retina and synchronizes endogenous rhythms with the external light/dark cycles. SCN regulates circadian rhythms in the peripheral oscillators via neural and humoral signals, which account for daily fluctuations of the physiological processes in these organs. Disruption of circadian rhythms can cause health problems and circadian dysfunction has been linked to many human diseases.