Circadian rhythms of behavior and physiology are generated by central and peripheral circadian oscillators entrained by periodic environmental or physiological stimuli. A master circadian pacemaker in the hypothalamic suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is directly entrained by daily light-dark (LD) cycles, and coordinates the timing of other oscillators by direct and indirect neural, hormonal and behavioral outputs. The daily rhythm of food intake provides stimuli that entrain most peripheral and central oscillators, some of which can drive a daily rhythm of food anticipatory activity if food is restricted to one daily mealtime. The location of food-entrainable oscillators (FEOs) that drive food anticipatory rhythms, and the food-related stimuli that entrain these oscillators, remain to be clarified. Here, we critically examine the role of peripheral metabolic hormones as potential internal entrainment stimuli or outputs for FEOs controlling food anticipatory rhythms in rats and mice. Hormones for which data are available include corticosterone, ghrelin, leptin, insulin, glucagon, and glucagon-like peptide 1. All of these hormones exhibit daily rhythms of synthesis and secretion that are synchronized by meal timing. There is some evidence that ghrelin and leptin modulate the expression of food anticipatory rhythms, but none of the hormones examined so far are necessary for entrainment. Ghrelin and leptin likely modulate food-entrained rhythms by actions in hypothalamic circuits utilizing melanocortin and orexin signaling, although again food-entrained behavioral rhythms can persist in lesion and gene knockout models in which these systems are disabled. Actions of these hormones on circadian oscillators in central reward circuits remain to be evaluated. Food-entrained activity rhythms are likely mediated by a distributed system of circadian oscillators sensitive to multiple feeding related inputs. Metabolic hormones appear to play a modulatory role within this system.
Keywords: circadian; corticosterone; food entrainment; ghrelin; insulin; leptin; melanocortin; orexin.