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J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2016 Jun;160:118-26. doi: 10.1016/j.jsbmb.2015.10.007. Epub 2015 Oct 22.

Neuroendocrine underpinnings of sex differences in circadian timing systems.

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Department of Psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA; Neuroscience Program, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA. Electronic address:
Psychology Department, Barnard College, New York, NY 10027, USA; Department of Psychology, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027, USA; Department of Pathology and Cell Biology, Columbia University Health Sciences, New York, NY 10032, USA.


There are compelling reasons to study the role of steroids and sex differences in the circadian timing system. A solid history of research demonstrates the ubiquity of circadian changes that impact virtually all behavioral and biological responses. Furthermore, steroid hormones can modulate every attribute of circadian responses including the period, amplitude and phase. Finally, desynchronization of circadian rhythmicity, and either enhancing or damping amplitude of various circadian responses can produce different effects in the sexes. Studies of the neuroendocrine underpinnings of circadian timing systems and underlying sex differences have paralleled the overall development of the field as a whole. Early experimental studies established the ubiquity of circadian rhythms by cataloging daily and seasonal changes in whole organism responses. The next generation of experiments demonstrated that daily changes are not a result of environmental synchronizing cues, and are internally orchestrated, and that these differ in the sexes. This work was followed by the revelation of molecular circadian rhythms within individual cells. At present, there is a proliferation of work on the consequences of these daily oscillations in health and in disease, and awareness that these may differ in the sexes. In the present discourse we describe the paradigms used to examine circadian oscillation, to characterize how these internal timing signals are synchronized to local environmental conditions, and how hormones of gonadal and/or adrenal origin modulate circadian responses. Evidence pointing to endocrinologically and genetically mediated sex differences in circadian timing systems can be seen at many levels of the neuroendocrine and endocrine systems, from the cell, the gland and organ, and to whole animal behavior, including sleep/wake or rest/activity cycles, responses to external stimuli, and responses to drugs. We review evidence indicating that the analysis of the circadian timing system is amenable to experimental analysis at many levels of the neuraxis, and on several different time scales, rendering it especially useful for the exploration of mechanisms associated with sex differences.


Circadian rhythms; Sex difference; Steroids; Suprachiasmatic nucleus

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