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Discuss the role played by endogenous pacemakers and exogenous zeitgebers in

biological rhythms.

A biological rhythm can is as any change in a biological activity that repeats

periodically. They include rhythms with a frequency or periodicity of less than one
day (ultradian), those with a periodicity of approximately one day (circadian), and
those with a periodicity of greater than one day (infradian). These biological rhythms
are most often synchronized with daily, monthly, or annual cyclical changes in the
environment. These external factors affecting biological rhythms are known as
exogenous zeitgebers. A zeitgeber is an environmental cue, such as the length of
daylight or the degree of temperature that helps to regulate the cycles of any
any living
organism's biological clock (or endogenous pacemaker).

The daily pattern of sleeping for 8 hours in every 24 (the sleep-wake cycle) is,
perhaps, the most obvious of our biological cycles and is known as a circadian
rhythm. A circadian rhythm is a cycle of roughly 24 hours (from the Latin circa,
“around” and diem,
diem, “day”) which is generated biologically, and can be affected, or
synchronised depending on which zeitgebers are present,
present, this is mostly light and dark.
Research has suggest that in the brain, there are certain structures which act as an
endogenous pacemaker for the body by detecting light and dark, thus allowing an
organism to sleep and wake in synchronisation with the earth’s light-dark cycle. A
number of different brain structures are involves in regulating sleeping and waking,
however the main biological clock in humans and animals seems to be a small area in
the hypothalamus – the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SNC) – whose neurons have an in-
built circadian rhythmic firing pattern. The SCN regulates the production of serotonin
and melatonin in the pineal gland via an interconnecting pathway. Melatonin is a
hormone which induces sleep. Another pathway
pathway connects the retina of each eye to the
SCN. The amount of light falling on the retina influences the activity of SCN neurons
and, indirectly, the release of melatonin from the pineal gland. So the link between
light and melatonin production is maintained.

Ralph et al. (1990) used hamsters, some with a genetic abnormality affecting their
circadian cycle, to try and provide evidence that the SCN generates the circadian
rhythm in mammals. A group of hamsters was identified with a genetic abnormality
that was resulted in a 20-hour circadian cycle, rather than 24-hour. The SCNs were
removed and placed in the brains of an experimental group of hamsters with a normal
24-hour cycle. Eventually, the experimental group shifted to a 20-hour cycle. The
study supports the theory that the SCN is the endogenous pacemaker and generates
the rhythm in animals. We don’t, however, have any reason to believe that the human
sleep-wake cycle is radically different. A lot of studies, also involving not-human
animals, were conducted in lab conditions and therefore the results cannot be
generalized to an animal’s natural habitat. There are ethical issues with this study such
as causing harm or distress and also, the procedure is extremely invasive.

Research has shown that animals fed on a regular basis become active just befor
feeding time. This happens in the absence of other environmental cues and therefore
supports the existence if some sort of internal biological clock or regulator.
Rossenwasser et al. (1981) found that rats still showed this anticipation after their
SCN had been destroyed, so another biological clock must also be able to perform this
function. However, these results have derived from studies involving animals. One
important issue that must be taken into consideration generalisability to humans. We
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do know that systems differ from one animal to the next; therefore it is important to
check any animal findings against research with humans.

The most famous study of free-running biological rhythms involved a French cave
explore called Michel Siffre who, in 1972, spent 6 months in an underground cave in
Texas, in the absence of natural light-dark cycles. When he was awake, the
researchers put the lights on; when he went to bed, they turned the lights on. He ate
and slept whenever he wanted. At first his sleep-wake cycle was very erratic, but
settled down to a fairly regular pattern of between 25 and 30 hours, that is, slightly
longer than a 24-hour cycle. When he emerged, it was the 179th day, but by ‘his days,
it was only the 151st day since he went underground. The case of Michael Siffre may
be dismissed as the study of just one unusual individual. However, we should
consider the important role they play in helping us understand the nature off circadian
rhythms. Although unusual, such studies offer an extremely rare insight into what
happens when our bodies are left to ‘free-run’, and therefore play a role in confirming
what experimental studies involving larger groups have already suggested. Studies of
free-running biological rhythms in humans also show that there are significant
individual differences in these mechanisms, i.e. that they may not operate in exactly
the same way in all people. In a similar study, Kate Aldcroft was housed in a lab for
25 days, also with no access to cues about the time of day. To indicate her perception
of the passage of time, she was asked to play Amazing Grace on the bagpipes at, what
she believed to be the same time, each day. The time at which she played became later
over the study period. She began to sleep for longer (up to 16 hours at a time) and her
sleep-wake cycle extended to 30 hours. The contrast between the alterations in the
length of sleep-wake cycles is further evidence for the role of individual differences in
free-running biological rhythm studies. The study of Michael Siffre might be
described as a case study – it is the study of one individual and therefore has unique
features. His body’s behaviour may not be typical of all people and, in addition, living
in a cave living in a cave may have particular effects due to, for example, the fact that
it is cold. However, subsequent studies above ground have confirmed the findings of
research in cave environments (Kate Aldcroft).
Aldcroft). Siffre’s study was also an experiment
– he controlled key variables (exogenous zeitgebers) to observe the effects on the
sleep wake-cycle. The experimental approach is important because it allows us to
demonstrate causal relationships.

These two studies clearly show how the body’s sleep-wake circadian rhythm is
disrupted in the absence of external cues and, in effect, the role of exogenous
zeitgebers in circadian rhythms. The sensitivity to light of the pineal gland and the
SCN, and the role of melatonin in controlling sleep and other activity, mean that
despite the endogenous nature of biological clocks, their activity is synchronized with
the light-dark rhythm of the outside world. Occasionally, slightly bizarre studies, such
as Michael Siffre and Kate Aldcroft,
Aldcroft, have allowed us to look at the effects of
removing light as an exogenous zeitgeber, allowing these biological clocks to run
free. Studies such as these, show that humans with a free-running biological clock
settle into a rhythmic sleep-wake pattern of between 25 -27 hours, that is, slightly
longer than under normal conditions. Conclusions which can be drawn from this are
that endogenous mechanisms can control sleep-wake cycles in the absence of light,
but also, that light as an exogenous zeitgeber is necessary to reset the clock every day
so that the biological rhythm is coordinated with the external world.

There are, however, also weaknesses of this biological approach to bodily rhythms.
All these studies are typical of the biological approach to understanding behaviour:
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they propose that human behaviour can be explained in terms of structures in the brain
and in terms of hormonal activity. However, human behaviour is often more complex
than this because people can override biologically determined behaviours by making
choices about what they do. In this sense, the biological approach may be seen as

On the other hand, sometimes it may not be possible to override biological factors and
biological rhythms. A powerful example of this was the study of a young man who
was blind from birth and had a circadian rhythm of 24.9 hours. He was exposed to
various exogenous zeitgebers such as clocks and social cue, yet found it difficult to
reduce his internal pace. This made it very difficult for him to function and, as a result
he had to take stimulants in the morning and sedatives’ at night in order to get his
biological rhythm in time with the rest of the world (Miles et al., 1997).