July 25, 2011
Science Daily/University of California - Los Angeles
A new study of the brain's master circadian clock reveals that a key pattern of rhythmic neural activity begins to decline by middle age. The study may have implications for the enormous number of older people who have difficulty sleeping and adjusting to time changes.
"Aging has a profound effect on circadian timing," said Block, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and of physiological science. "It is very clear that animals' circadian systems begin to deteriorate as they age, and humans have enormous problems with the quality of their sleep as they age, difficulty adjusting to time-zone changes and difficulty performing shift-work, as well as less alertness when awake. There is a real change in the sleep-wake cycle.
"The question is, what changes in the nervous system underlie all of that? This paper suggests a primary cause of at least some of these changes is a reduction in the amplitude of the rhythmic signals from the SCN." The SCN, located in the hypothalamus, is the central circadian clock in humans and other mammals and controls not only the timing of the sleep-wake cycle but also many other rhythmic and non-rhythmic processes in the body.
"With many neurological disorders, patients have a hard time sleeping during the night and staying awake during the day," said Colwell, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Block's lab in the early 1990s at the University of Virginia. "One of the main clinical complaints of patients with Huntington's disease and Parkinson's disease is they cannot sleep and do not respond well to sleeping pills. We think the same dysfunction we see with normal aging occurs much earlier and more severely with these patients, and we hope that the treatment strategies we develop for aging can be applied to help patients with neurodegenerative diseases as well. If we learn what is going wrong, then we may be able to develop treatments."