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J Physiol. 2001 Sep 15;535(Pt 3):937-51.

Evidence for a biological dawn and dusk in the human circadian timing system.

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Section on Biological Rhythms, NIMH, Building 10, Room 3S-231, 10 Center Drive MSC1390, Bethesda, MD 20892-1390, USA.


1. Because individuals differ in the phase angle at which their circadian rhythms are entrained to external time cues, averaging group data relative to clock time sometimes obscures abrupt changes that are characteristic of waveforms of the rhythms in individuals. Such changes may have important implications for the temporal organization of human circadian physiology. 2. To control for variance in phase angle of entrainment, we used dual internal reference points--onset and offset of the nocturnal period of melatonin secretion--to calculate average profiles of circadian rhythm data from five previously published studies. 3. Onset and/or offset of melatonin secretion were found to coincide with switch-like transitions between distinct diurnal and nocturnal periods of circadian rhythms in core body temperature, sleepiness, power in the theta band of the wake EEG, sleep propensity and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep propensity. 4. Transitions between diurnal and nocturnal periods of sleep-wake and cortisol circadian rhythms were found to lag the other transitions by 1-3 h. 5. When the duration of the daily light period was manipulated experimentally, melatonin-onset-related transitions in circadian rhythms appeared to be entrained to the light-to-dark transition, while melatonin-offset-related transitions appeared to be entrained to the dark-to-light transition. 6. These results suggest a model of the human circadian timing system in which two states, one diurnal and one nocturnal, alternate with one another, and in which transitions between the states are switch-like and are separately entrained to dawn and dusk. 7. This description of the human circadian system is similar to the Pittendrigh-Daan model of the rodent circadian system, and it suggests that core features of the system in other mammals are conserved in humans.

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