The circadian system: From clocks to physiology

Handb Clin Neurol. 2021;179:233-247. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-819975-6.00013-3.


The circadian system, composed of the central autonomous clock, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), and systems of the body that follow the signals of the SCN, continuously change the homeostatic set points of the body over the day-night cycle. Changes in the body's physiological state that do not agree with the time of the day feedback to the hypothalamus, and provide input to the SCN to adjust the condition, thus reaching another set point required by the changed conditions. This allows the adjustment of the set points to another level when environmental conditions change, which is thought to promote adaptation and survival. In fasting, the body temperature drops to a lower level only at the beginning of the sleep phase. Stressful conditions raise blood pressure relatively more during the active period than during the rest phase. Extensive, mostly reciprocal SCN interactions, with hypothalamic networks, induce these physiological adjustments by hormonal and autonomic control of the body's organs. More importantly, in addition to SCN's hormonal and autonomic influences, SCN induced behavior, such as rhythmic food intake, induces the oscillation of many genes in all tissues, including the so-called clock genes, which have an essential role as a transcriptional driving force for numerous cellular processes. Consequently, the light-dark cycle, the rhythm of the SCN, and the resulting rhythm in behavior need to be perfectly synchronized, especially where it involves synchronizing food intake with the activity phase. If these rhythms are not synchronous for extended periods of times, such as during shift work, light exposure at night, or frequent night eating, disease may develop. As such, our circadian system is a perfect illustration of how hypothalamic-driven processes depend on and interact with each other and need to be in seamless synchrony with the body's physiology.

Keywords: Autonomic nervous system; Ovulation; Sensory system; Suprachiasmatic nucleus; Temperature regulation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autonomic Nervous System
  • Circadian Clocks*
  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamus
  • Suprachiasmatic Nucleus