Odor is a time cue for circadian behavior

J Biol Rhythms. 2013 Feb;28(1):26-37. doi: 10.1177/0748730412469353.


Many physiological and behavioral processes such as sleep and wakefulness, hormone secretion, and olfactory sensitivity exhibit a 24-h rhythmicity that persists in constant conditions with a period close to (circa) 24 h. These circadian rhythms are driven by a network of endogenous clocks residing in various tissues, including the olfactory system, and are synchronized to the outside world by environmental time cues such as light, temperature, and food. In addition to having these well-known zeitgebers of circadian clocks, most environments consist of a multitude of odors that report, for example, the availability of food or the presence of predators--and often, they do so in a time-of-day-dependent manner. Considering the evolutionary significance of odors for various fitness-related behaviors such as mate choice, predator avoidance, and foraging strategies, we asked whether odors--similar to light, temperature, or food--might act as a circadian time cue able to influence circadian locomotor behavior in mammals. Administering individual air flow, periodically saturated with an artificial odor mix, to running wheel-equipped mouse cages, we found that rhythmic odor administrations significantly lengthened the period of circadian activity rhythms. Additionally, odor cues led to partial reemergence of circadian locomotor rhythmicity in suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN)-lesioned mice, suggesting that the SCN as the central circadian pacemaker are not immediately required for odor-mediated effects on circadian behavior. However, odor-based modulation of circadian behavior did not occur in clock mutant (cry1(-/-) /cry2(-/-)) mice, indicating an odor-mediated mechanism that involves extra-SCN canonical clocks, such as the olfactory clock itself. Our results indicate not only that odor stimuli can act as a circadian time cue modulating circadian behavior but also that odor effects are even more pronounced in the absence of the SCN but nevertheless require the presence of a functional canonical clock.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior / physiology
  • Circadian Clocks / physiology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Odorants
  • Olfactory Pathways / physiology*
  • Period Circadian Proteins / metabolism
  • Suprachiasmatic Nucleus / metabolism
  • Suprachiasmatic Nucleus / physiology*


  • Period Circadian Proteins