Circadian rhythms in the fetus

Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2012 Feb 5;349(1):68-75. doi: 10.1016/j.mce.2011.07.039. Epub 2011 Aug 5.


Throughout gestation, the close relationship between mothers and their progeny ensures adequate development and a successful transition to postnatal life. By living inside the maternal compartment, the fetus is inevitably exposed to rhythms of the maternal internal milieu such as temperature; rhythms originated by maternal food intake and maternal melatonin, one of the few maternal hormones that cross the placenta unaltered. The fetus, immature by adult standards, is however perfectly fit to accomplish the dual functions of living in the uterine environment and developing the necessary tools to "mature" for the next step, i.e. to be a competent newborn. In the fetal physiological context, organ function differs from the same organ's function in the newborn and adult. This may also extend to the developing circadian system. The information reviewed here suggests that the fetal circadian system is organized differently from that of the adult. Moreover, the fetal circadian rhythm is not just present simply as the initial immature expression of a mechanism that has function in the postnatal animal only. We propose that the fetal suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus and fetal organs are peripheral maternal circadian oscillators, entrained by different maternal signals. Conceptually, the arrangement produces internal temporal order during fetal life, inside the maternal compartment. Following birth, it will allow for postnatal integration of the scattered fetal circadian clocks into an adult-like circadian system commanded by the SCN.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Glands / embryology
  • Adrenal Glands / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Female
  • Fetus / metabolism
  • Fetus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange
  • Melatonin / metabolism
  • Melatonin / physiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Suprachiasmatic Nucleus / embryology
  • Suprachiasmatic Nucleus / metabolism


  • Melatonin