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CNS Drugs. 2001;15(4):311-28.

Circadian rhythm sleep disorders: pathophysiology and potential approaches to management.

Author information

  • Department of Neurobiochemistry, The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, Tel Aviv University, Israel. navazis@ccsg.tau.ac.il


An intrinsic body clock residing in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) within the brain regulates a complex series of rhythms in humans, including sleep/wakefulness. The individual period of the endogenous clock is usually >24 hours and is normally entrained to match the environmental rhythm. Misalignment of the circadian clock with the environmental cycle may result in sleep disorders. Among these are chronic insomnias associated with an endogenous clock which runs slower or faster than the norm [delayed (DSPS) or advanced (ASPS) sleep phase syndrome, or irregular sleep-wake cycle], periodic insomnias due to disturbances in light perception (non-24-hour sleep-wake syndrome and sleep disturbances in blind individuals) and temporary insomnias due to social circumstances (jet lag and shift-work sleep disorder). Synthesis of melatonin (N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine) within the pineal gland is induced at night, directly regulated by the SCN. Melatonin can relay time-of-day information (signal of darkness) to various organs, including the SCN itself. The phase-shifting effects of melatonin are essentially opposite to those of light. In addition, melatonin facilitates sleep in humans. In the absence of a light-dark cycle, the timing of the circadian clock, including the timing of melatonin production in the pineal gland, may to some extent be adjusted with properly timed physical exercise. Bright light exposure has been demonstrated as an effective treatment for circadian rhythm sleep disorders. Under conditions of entrainment to the 24-hour cycle, bright light in the early morning and avoidance of light in the evening should produce a phase advance (for treatment of DSPS), whereas bright light in the evening may be effective in delaying the clock (ASPS). Melatonin, given several hours before its endogenous peak at night, effectively advances sleep time in DSPS and adjusts the sleep-wake cycle to 24 hours in blind individuals. In some blind individuals, melatonin appears to fully entrain the clock. Melatonin and light, when properly timed, may also alleviate jet lag. Because of its sleep-promoting effect, melatonin may improve sleep in night-shift workers trying to sleep during the daytime. Melatonin replacement therapy may also provide a rational approach to the treatment of age-related insomnia in the elderly. However, there is currently no melatonin formulation approved for clinical use, neither are there consensus protocols for light or melatonin therapies. The use of bright light or melatonin for circadian rhythm sleep disorders is thus considered exploratory at this stage.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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