July 25, 2011
Science Daily/University of California - Los Angeles
A new study of the brain's master circadian clock -- known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN -- reveals that a key pattern of rhythmic neural activity begins to decline by middle age. The study, whose senior author is UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, may have implications for the large 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.
The SCN keeps the system of multiple distributed circadian oscillators in synchrony, but disruptions in the SCN lead to disrupted sleep, as well as dysfunction in memory, the cardiovascular system, and the body's immune response and metabolism.
The SCN, Block said, can be imagined as a heavy pendulum that controls many light pendulums (oscillators), with rubber bands between them.
"If the central clock weakens, it's effectively like making those rubber bands thinner and weaker," Block said. "When the SCN ages and those rubber bands become weaker, it becomes hard for the SCN to synchronize all of these other oscillators."