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Biophys J. 2005 Jul;89(1):120-9. Epub 2005 Apr 22.

Spontaneous synchronization of coupled circadian oscillators.

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Institute for Theoretical Biology, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany.


In mammals, the circadian pacemaker, which controls daily rhythms, is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Circadian oscillations are generated in individual SCN neurons by a molecular regulatory network. Cells oscillate with periods ranging from 20 to 28 h, but at the tissue level, SCN neurons display significant synchrony, suggesting a robust intercellular coupling in which neurotransmitters are assumed to play a crucial role. We present a dynamical model for the coupling of a population of circadian oscillators in the SCN. The cellular oscillator, a three-variable model, describes the core negative feedback loop of the circadian clock. The coupling mechanism is incorporated through the global level of neurotransmitter concentration. Global coupling is efficient to synchronize a population of 10,000 cells. Synchronized cells can be entrained by a 24-h light-dark cycle. Simulations of the interaction between two populations representing two regions of the SCN show that the driven population can be phase-leading. Experimentally testable predictions are: 1), phases of individual cells are governed by their intrinsic periods; and 2), efficient synchronization is achieved when the average neurotransmitter concentration would dampen individual oscillators. However, due to the global neurotransmitter oscillation, cells are effectively synchronized.

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