A Closer Look at the Body’s Master Clock

    Researchers Pinpoint Protein Crucial For Development Of Biological Rhythms In Mice

    Johns Hopkins researchers report that they have identified a protein essential to the formation of the tiny brain region in mice that coordinates sleep-wake cycles and other so-called circadian rhythms.

    By disabling the gene for that key protein in test animals, the scientists were able to home in on the mechanism by which that brain region, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN, becomes the body’s master clock while the embryo is developing.

    The results of their experiments, reported in the April 24 issue of Cell Reports, are an important step toward understanding how to better manage the disruptive effects experienced by shift workers, as well as treatment of people with sleep disorders, the researchers say.

    “Shift workers tend to have higher rates of diabetes, obesity, depression and cancer. Many researchers think that’s somehow connected to their irregular circadian rhythms, and thus to the SCN,” says Seth Blackshaw, Ph.D., an associate professor in theDepartment of Neuroscience and the Institute for Cell Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Our new research will help us and other researchers isolate the specific impacts of the SCN on mammalian health.”

    Blackshaw explains that every cell in the body has its own “clock” that regulates aspects such as its rate of energy use. The SCN is the master clock that synchronizes these individual timekeepers so that, for example, people feel sleepy at night and alert during the day, are hungry at mealtimes, and are prepared for the energy influx that hits fat cells after eating. “A unique property of the SCN is that if its cells are grown in a dish, they quickly synchronize their clocks with each another,” Blackshaw says.

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