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On Circadian Rhythms: including the role of the endogenous pacemakers and exogenous zeitgebers The sleep-wake cycle in human

beings, which is the cycle that one undergoes within an approximate 24 hour rotation, is the cycle where humans sleep and then wake in a relatively steady rhythm on a consistent basis, there is also the strong indication that this circadian rhythm seems to be determined by the influence of endogenous pacemakers and exogenous zeitgebers. In mammals, the main endogenous pacemaker is a coalition of nerve cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), located in the hypothalamus directly above the optic chiasm, where the optic nerves partially cross and are used in registering information from the retina to the brain. The SCN obtains information about light from the eye via the optic nerves. This happens even when our eyes are shut, because the eyelids are permeable to light and thus light passes through the eyelids and is registered by the retina. If our endogenous clock is slightly behind the usual patterns, such as when the sun rises earlier than the day before, the morning light automatically shifts the clock ahead, putting the rhythm in step with the world outside. It should be noted that the suprachiasmatic nuclei is bilateral and located in each hemisphere, these are equally known as the ventral and dorsal SCN. The ventral SCN is relatively quickly reset by external cues, whereas the dorsal SCN is much less affected by light and therefore more resistant to being reset. At night the SCN sends signals to the pineal gland, located between the two hemispheres of the brain, the SCN then causes the pineal gland to increase the production of the hormone melatonin, a derivative of serotonin. Melatonin is the hormone that induces sleep by inhibiting the brain mechanisms that promote the individual to be awake. In birds and reptiles the pineal gland lies just beneath the bone of the skull and is directly regulated by light; light inhibits the production of melatonin. All vertebrates have a pineal gland, the only important exception being the hagfish (an incredibly primitive vertebrate). In fact many lizards have a third eye near the pineal gland which actually protrudes externally through an opening in the skull; it is typically a tiny grey oval, and receives information about light. In the sleep-wake cycle of humans the process of resetting the biological clock with exogenous zeitgebers is known as entrainment. The opposite of entrainment is free running- where the biological clock operates in the absence of any exogenous cues such as light. Light is the main exogenous zeitgeber in humans. It is light that has the ability to reset the bodys main endogenous pacemaker (the SCN). Psychologists have investigated what happens when a person is free from external cues using temporal isolated studies i.e. the biological rhythm is allowed to free run and be unaffected by external cues. Michael Siffre famously spent 6 months inside a cave with no natural light or sound and only contacted the outside world via a telephone. He had no means of telling the time. His behaviour generally remained on a cycle that had lengthened to 25 hours, although, at times it changed drastically to as much as 48 hours. This indicates that circadian rhythms persist despite isolation from natural light, which demonstrates the existence of an endogenous clock. However, it also shows the importance of external cues since the clock was not perfectly accurate, it varied from day to day. This research is supported by Kate Aldcroft who spent 25 days in a laboratory with no access to cues about the time of day. She was asked to play Amazing Grace on the bagpipes twice a day at what

she thought was the same time in order to judge her perception of time. The time at which she played lengthened over time, she also slept for longer, and eventually her sleep-wake cycle was extended to 30 hours. The evidence from studies such as these suggests that the biological clock maintains rhythmical activity but without external cues, the rhythm length becomes longer. Studies of free-running biological rhythms in humans also show there are significant individual differences in these mechanisms i.e. that they may not operate in exactly the same way in all people. For example, Duffy (2000) found that individuals appear to have genetic differences in whether they prefer to go to bed early and wake early or vice versa. As such, the theory that the sleep-wake cycle circadian rhythm revolves around the suprachiasmatic nucleus (endogenous pacemaker) or light (exogenous zeitgebers) might be too simplistic. Folkard (1985) conducted an experiment to see if external cues could be used to override the internal clock. A group of 12 people lived in a cave for three weeks, isolated from natural light and other time cues. These volunteers agreed to go to bed when the clock indicated 11:45pm and to get up when it indicated 7:45am. Initially the clock ran normally but the experimenters gradually sped it up so it ran over 20 hours. Only one out of the 12 participants managed to keep to the 22 hour regime. This suggests that the circadian rhythm can only be guided to a limited extent by external cues. Much of the research conducted on humans has used very few and in some cases only one participant. Therefore we have to be very careful in generalizing the results and conclusions. However, the role of the SCN has been demonstrated in animal studies. Morgan (1995) bred genetically engineered hamsters so they had circadian rhythms of 20 hours instead of 24 hours, and then transplanted their SCNs into normal hamsters. The normal hamsters then displayed the genetically manipulated rhythms. Lesions on the SCN in animals have been found to abolish regularity in sleep patterns also. This seems to indicate that the SCN plays an extremely important biological role. Many studies in this area have also used other variations on non-human animal research in this area of psychology. Firstly, it is questionable as the whether the results from animal studies can be generalised to humans since systems are likely to vary from one species to another. Secondly, some might argue that this research is unethical due to the harm caused to the animals. A counter argument however is that the research may have important uses and applications for humans e.g. in the treatments of sleep disorders. Overall, the research does appear to have established the existence of endogenous pacemakers regulated by exogenous zeitgebers. The SCN in particular seems vital in running the internal biological clock, however this is entrained by external cues, most notably light.