Mammalian circadian systems: Organization and modern life challenges

Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2021 Mar;231(3):e13548. doi: 10.1111/apha.13548. Epub 2020 Sep 9.


Humans and other mammalian species possess an endogenous circadian clock system that has evolved in adaptation to periodically reoccurring environmental changes and drives rhythmic biological functions, as well as behavioural outputs with an approximately 24-hour period. In mammals, body clocks are hierarchically organized, encompassing a so-called pacemaker clock in the hypothalamic suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), non-SCN brain and peripheral clocks, as well as cell-autonomous oscillators within virtually every cell type. A functional clock machinery on the molecular level, alignment among body clocks, as well as synchronization between endogenous circadian and exogenous environmental cycles has been shown to be crucial for our health and well-being. Yet, modern life constantly poses widespread challenges to our internal clocks, for example artificial lighting, shift work and trans-meridian travel, potentially leading to circadian disruption or misalignment and the emergence of associated diseases. For instance many of us experience a mismatch between sleep timing on work and free days (social jetlag) in our everyday lives without being aware of health consequences that may arise from such chronic circadian misalignment, Hence, this review provides an overview of the organization and molecular built-up of the mammalian circadian system, its interactions with the outside world, as well as pathologies arising from circadian disruption and misalignment.

Keywords: circadian disruption; circadian misalignment; circadian morbidities; mammalian circadian clocks.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Circadian Clocks*
  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Humans
  • Mammals
  • Sleep
  • Suprachiasmatic Nucleus