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Prog Brain Res. 1992;93:151-62; discussion 162-3.

Circadian rhythms and the suprachiasmatic nucleus in perinatal development, aging and Alzheimer's disease.

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Netherlands Institute for Brain Research, Amsterdam.


Circadian rhythms are already present in the fetus. At a certain stage of pre-natal hypothalamic development (around 30 weeks of gestation) the fetus becomes responsive to maternal circadian signals. Moreover, recent studies showed that the fetal biological clock is able to generate circadian rhythms, as exemplified by the rhythms of body temperature and heart rate of pre-term babies in the absence of maternal or environmental entrainment factors. Pre-term babies that are deprived of maternal entrainment and kept under constant environmental conditions (e.g., continuous light) in the neonatal intensive care unit run the risk of developing a biological clock dysfunctioning. However, the fact should be acknowledged that at least in mice the development of the circadian pacemaker (i.e., SCN) does not depend on environmental influences (Davis and Menaker, 1981), although other data suggest that severe disruption of the maternal circadian rhythm indeed abolishes the circadian rhythm of the fetal SCN (Shibata and Moore, 1988). During aging and in particular in AD circadian rhythms are disturbed. These disturbances include phase advance and reduced period and amplitude, as well as an increased intradaily variability and a decreased interdaily stability of the rhythm. Among the factors underlying these changes the loss of SCN neurons seems to play a central role. Other contributory factors may be reduced amount of light, degenerative changes in the visual system and the level of activity and decreased melatonin.

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