Modern imaging techniques allow the monitoring of circadian rhythms of single cells. Coupling between these single cellular circadian oscillators can generate coherent periodic signals on the tissue level that subsequently orchestrate physiological outputs. The strength of coupling in such systems of oscillators is often unclear. In particular, effects on coupling strength by varying cell densities, by knockouts, and by inhibitor applications are debated. In this study, we suggest to quantify the relative coupling strength via analyzing period, phase, and amplitude distributions in ensembles of individual circadian oscillators. Simulations of different oscillator networks show that period and phase distributions become narrower with increasing coupling strength. Moreover, amplitudes can increase due to resonance effects. Variances of periods and phases decay monotonically with coupling strength, and can serve therefore as measures of relative coupling strength. Our theoretical predictions are confirmed by studying recently published experimental data from PERIOD2 expression in slices of the suprachiasmatic nucleus during and after the application of tetrodotoxin (TTX). On analyzing the corresponding period, phase, and amplitude distributions, we can show that treatment with TTX can be associated with a reduced coupling strength in the system of coupled oscillators. Analysis of an oscillator network derived directly from the data confirms our conclusions. We suggest that our approach is also applicable to quantify coupling in fibroblast cultures and hepatocyte networks, and for social synchronization of circadian rhythmicity in rodents, flies, and bees.
Keywords: circadian clock; coupling; oscillator; suprachiasmatic nucleus; synchronization.