Metabolism in the brain fluctuates with circadian rhythm

August 30, 2012

Proposed model of the relative interdependency of the transcriptional-translational oscillator, redox oscillator, and membrane excitability oscillation (credit: Mino D. C. Belle and Hugh D. Piggins/Science)

The brain clock — the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus — is driven in part by metabolism, the production and flow of chemical energy in cells, a new study reveals.

The researchers focused primarily on a phenomenon known as “redox” in neural tissues of the SCN from the brains of rats and mice.

(Redox represents the energy changes of cellular metabolism (usually through the transfer of electrons). When a molecule gains one or more electrons, scientists call it a reduction; when it loses electrons, they say it is oxidized. These redox reactions, the researchers found, oscillate on a 24-hour cycle in the brain clock, and literally open and close channels of communication in brain cells.)

“The fundamental discovery here is that there is an intrinsic oscillation in metabolism in the clock region of the brain that takes place without external intervention,” said University of Illinois cell and developmental biology professor Martha Gillette, who led the study. “And this change in metabolism determines the excitable state of that part of the brain. The new findings alter basic assumptions about how the brain works.

“Basically, the idea has always been that metabolism is serving brain function. What we’re showing is metabolism is part of brain function,” she said. “Our study implies that changes in cellular metabolic state could be a cause, rather than a result, of neuronal activity.”

The molecular transcription-translation feedback loop (TTFL) clock and the non-TTFL circadian oscillators in mammalian SCN neurons. In this model, the oscillators influence each other during the day and night. Neuron activity feeds back onto the TTFL clock by unknown mechanisms (not shown). (Credit: Mino D. C. Belle and Hugh D. Piggins/Science)