In a new study, scientists have discovered the gene that controls the body clock in mice; defects in this gene was found to effectively ‘short-circuit’ the circadian cycle, the so-called body clock. The study's findings could explain why the body clock remains so consistent and why the irregular hours of shift-work can have such a negative effect on employees' health.
The circadian cycle, or circadian rhythm as it is often called, is a cycle that is roughly repeated every 24 hours and is responsible for the timing of several crucial biological processes such as sleep, hormone production and body temperature regulation that change over the course of a day.
Although processes associated with the circadian cycle are in part managed by cells within corresponding tissues, in order for all these processes to synchronize and coordinate there needs to be a centralized point. This point is a small region of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN).
To learn more about the workings of the body clock, researchers compared the genes of mice with abnormally short body clocks with a control group having normal circadian rhythms. It was during this comparison that the researchers discovered that the gene labeled Zfhx3, which is very active in the hypothalamus area of the brain, plays a much more prominent role than previously understood.
Researchers found that Zfhx3 regulates the expression of important neurotransmitters and receptors that are crucial to the work of the SCN in synchronizing circadian rhythms. In the mice, faults in the Zfhx3 gene caused the biological clocks of the mice to be much faster than normal.
Being unable to synchronize biological rhythms within the brain has previously been associated with various behavioral and psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.