The anatomical structure serving as the internal circadian rhythm generator is the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the anterior hypothalamus. y , y Lesions of the SCN in rodents abolish circadian rhythmicity, and disconnection of the SCN from the rest of the brain also results in a loss of circadian rhythms in the brain in spite of
continued fluctuations within the SCN. Furthermore, in animals with ablations of the SCN, transplantation of fetal SCN tissue restores circadian rhythm.
Entrainment of these neurons occurs via the visual pathways linking photoreceptors of the retina to the SCN. There are two pathways: (1) a direct pathway called the retinohypothalamic tract (RHT) and (2) an indirect pathway called the geniculohypothalamic tract (GHT). Photoreceptors in the retina transduce light into nerve impulses and transmit information to ganglion cells, which are distributed over the entire retina. The cell processes of the ganglion cells make up the RHT, which travels through the optic nerve and optic chiasm. In the chiasm, two thirds of the axons cross and one third remain uncrossed. The RHT projects directly to the SCN. Collateral processes from the RHT continue in the optic tract to the lateral geniculate complex. From the lateral geniculate, the GHT projects to the SCN as the indirect pathway.
Efferent fibers from the SCN project to intrahypothalamic areas, encompassing the preoptic area, paraventricular nucleus, retrochiasmatic area, dorsomedial area and extrahypothalamic sites, including the thalamus, basal forebrain and periaqueductal gray. From these areas information is further relayed to the effector organs for particular biological rhythms.
In addition to controlling the circadian variability of the sleep-wake cycle, the SCN creates variability in locomotor activity, food intake, water intake, sexual behavior, core body temperature, and hormonal levels. Thus, cortisol is highest in the early morning hours between 4:00 to 8:00 am, and thyroid-stimulating hormone increases just before sleep. Hormones both influence and are influenced by the circadian clock.
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