Thursday, March 6, 2014

Resetting Our Clocks: How the Body's Tiny Timekeepers Work

Boosting doses of a molecule called VIP (green) in time-keeping brain cells (blue) helped mice adjust quickly to major shifts in light-dark cycles. 

Springing clocks forward by an hour this Sunday (March 9), traveling across time zones, staring at a computer screen late at night or working the third shift are just a few examples of activities that can disrupt our daily, or circadian, rhythms. These roughly 24-hour cycles influence our physiology and behavior, and they're driven by our body's network of tiny timekeepers. If our daily routines fall out of sync with our body clocks, sleep, metabolic and other disorders can result.  

Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health have spent decades piecing together the molecular mechanisms of our biological clocks. Now, they're building on that basic knowledge to better understand the intricate relationship among these clocks, circadian rhythms and physiology — and ultimately, find ways to manipulate the moving parts to improve our modern-day lives.

"The implications are quite significant when you think about the potential health and economic impact," says NIH's Michael Sesma, who has tracked progress in circadian rhythms research for more than 15 years. In addition to treating clock-related disorders, he says the ability to influence our biological clocks could aid soldiers and sailors in combat, airline pilots and crews, emergency department doctors and others who need to remain alert at night for long periods of time.   

People have been fascinated with daily rhythms of physiology and behavior in plants and animals for centuries, but research on the underlying biology began in the late 1960s.The observation that fruit fly eggs always hatch at the same time of day led to the identification of one of the first known "clock" genes. Shortly after, additional genetic research on fruit flies revealed several more clock components. Fruit flies are a model organism used to explore a wide range of biological processes, including the study of sleep and other rhythmic behaviors.

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