Sleep disorders are nearly ubiquitous among patients with Parkinson's disease (PD), and they manifest early in the disease process. While there are a number of possible mechanisms underlying these sleep disturbances, a primary dysfunction of the circadian system should be considered as a contributing factor. Our laboratory's behavioral phenotyping of a well-validated transgenic mouse model of PD reveals that the electrical activity of neurons within the master pacemaker of the circadian system, the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN), is already disrupted at the onset of motor symptoms, although the core features of the intrinsic molecular oscillations in the SCN remain functional. Our observations suggest that the fundamental circadian deficit in these mice lies in the signaling output from the SCN, which may be caused by known mechanisms in PD etiology: oxidative stress and mitochondrial disruption. Disruption of the circadian system is expected to have pervasive effects throughout the body and may itself lead to neurological and cardiovascular disorders. In fact, there is much overlap in the non-motor symptoms experienced by PD patients and in the consequences of circadian disruption. This raises the possibility that the sleep and circadian dysfunction experienced by PD patients may not merely be a subsidiary of the motor symptoms, but an integral part of the disease. Furthermore, we speculate that circadian dysfunction can even accelerate the pathology underlying PD. If these hypotheses are correct, more aggressive treatment of the circadian misalignment and sleep disruptions in PD patients early in the pathogenesis of the disease may be powerful positive modulators of disease progression and patient quality of life.
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