The tick-tock of language: is language processing sensitive to circadian rhythmicity and elevated sleep pressure?

Chronobiol Int. 2009 Jul;26(5):974-91. doi: 10.1080/07420520903044471.


The master circadian pacemaker emits signals that trigger organ-specific oscillators and, therefore, constitutes a basic biological process that enables organisms to anticipate daily environmental changes by adjusting behavior, physiology, and gene regulation. Although circadian rhythms are well characterized on a physiological level, little is known about circadian modulations of higher cognitive functions. Thus, we investigated circadian repercussions on language performance at the level of minimal syntactic processing by means of German noun phrases in ten young healthy men under the unmasking conditions of a 40 h constant-routine protocol. Language performance for both congruent and incongruent noun phrases displayed a clear diurnal rhythm with a peak performance decrement during the biological night. The nadirs, however, differed such that worst syntactic processing of incongruent noun phrases occurred 3 h earlier (07:00 h) than that of congruent noun phrases (10:00 h). Our results indicate that language performance displays an internally generated circadian rhythmicity with optimal time for parsing language between 3 to 6 h after the habitual wake time, which usually corresponds to 10:00-13:00 h. These results may have important ramifications for establishing optimal times for shiftwork changes or testing linguistically impaired people.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Biological Clocks
  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Melatonin / metabolism
  • Oscillometry
  • Psychometrics
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Software
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Time Factors
  • Wakefulness / physiology


  • Melatonin