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.
Lily Yan, Laura Smale, and Antonio A. Nunez
Circadian rhythms are endogenous daily rhythms evident in behavior and physiology. In mammals, these rhythms are controlled by a hierarchical network of oscillators showing a coherent circadian coordination or coupling. The hypothalamic suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) sits on top of the hierarchy and coordinates the phase of oscillators in other brain regions and in peripheral organs, including endocrine glands. The phase of the SCN oscillator, in reference to the daily light-dark cycle, is identical across mammalian species regardless of whether they are most active during the day or night, that is, diurnal or nocturnal. However, the extra-SCN or peripheral oscillators are out of phase and are often reversed by 180° across diurnal and nocturnal mammals. In the endocrine system, with the notable exception of the pattern of pineal melatonin secretion, which features elevated levels at night regardless of the activity profile of the species, most endocrine rhythms show a 180° reversal when diurnal and nocturnal species are compared. There is also evidence of differences between nocturnal and diurnal species with respect to their rhythms in sensitivity or responsiveness to hormonal stimulation. One of the major unanswered questions in the field of comparative endocrinology relates to the mechanism responsible for the differential coupling in diurnal and nocturnal mammals of extra-SCN oscillators and overt circadian rhythms with the SCN oscillator and the light dark cycle. Viable hypotheses include species-specific switches from excitation to inhibition at key nodes between the SCN and its targets, the presence of extra-SCN signals that converge on SCN targets and reverse the outcome of SCN signals, and changes in oscillatory parameters between the oscillator of the SCN and those outside the SCN resulting in an anti-phase coupling among key oscillators.
Understanding of the brain mechanisms regulating reproductive behaviors in female laboratory animals has been aided greatly by our knowledge of estrogen receptors in the brain. Hypothalamic neurons that express the gene for estrogen receptor-alpha regulate activity in the neural circuit for the simplest female reproductive response, lordosis behavior. In turn, many of the neurotransmitter inputs to the critical hypothalamic neurons have been studied using electrophysiological and neurochemical techniques. The upshot of all of these studies is that lordosis behavior presents the best understood set of mechanisms for any mammalian behavior.