This study explored the relationship between circadian performance rhythms and rhythms in rectal temperature, plasma cortisol, plasma melatonin, subjective alertness and well-being. Seventeen healthy young adults were studied under 36 h of 'unmasking' conditions (constant wakeful bedrest, temporal isolation, homogenized 'meals') during which rectal temperatures were measured every minute, and plasma cortisol and plasma melatonin measured every 20 min. Hourly subjective ratings of global vigour (alertness) and affect (well-being) were obtained followed by one of two performance batteries. On odd-numbered hours performance (speed and accuracy) of serial search, verbal reasoning and manual dexterity tasks was assessed. On even-numbered hours, performance (% hits, response speed) was measured at a 25-30 min visual vigilance task. Performance of all tasks (except search accuracy) showed a significant time of day variation usually with a nocturnal trough close to the trough in rectal temperature. Performance rhythms appeared not to reliably differ with working memory load. Within subjects, predominantly positive correlations emerged between good performance and higher temperatures and better subjective alertness; predominantly negative correlations between good performance and higher plasma levels of cortisol and melatonin. Temperature and cortisol rhythms correlated with slightly more performance measures (5/7) than did melatonin rhythms (4/7). Global vigour correlated about as well with performance (5/7) as did temperature, and considerably better than global affect (1/7).
In conclusion: (1) between-task heterogeneity in circadian performance rhythms appeared to be absent when the sleep/wake cycle was suspended; (2) temperature (positively), cortisol and melatonin (negatively) appeared equally good as circadian correlates of performance, and (3) subjective alertness correlated with performance rhythms as well as (but not better than) body temperature, suggesting that performance rhythms were not directly mediated by rhythms in subjective alertness.