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Keywords:

  • entrainment;
  • phase shift;
  • photoperiod;
  • plasticity;
  • suprachiasmatic nucleus

Abstract

Circadian rhythms are an essential property of many living organisms, and arise from an internal pacemaker, or clock. In mammals, this clock resides in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus, and generates an intrinsic circadian rhythm that is transmitted to other parts of the CNS. We will review the evidence that basic adaptive functions of the circadian system rely on functional plasticity in the neuronal network organization, and involve a change in phase relation among oscillatory neurons. We will illustrate this for: (i) photic entrainment of the circadian clock to the light–dark cycle; and (ii) seasonal adaptation of the clock to changes in day length. Molecular studies have shown plasticity in the phase relation between the ventral and dorsal SCN during adjustment to a shifted environmental cycle. Seasonal adaptation relies predominantly on plasticity in the phase relation between the rostral and caudal SCN. Electrical activity is integrated in the SCN, and appears to reflect the sum of the differently phased molecular expression patterns. While both photic entrainment and seasonal adaptation arise from a redistribution of SCN oscillatory activity patterns, different neuronal coupling mechanisms are employed, which are reviewed in the present paper.