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Model of Internal Clocks Reveals How Jet Lag Disrupts the System

Symptoms of extreme jet lag may result from the body overshooting as it tries to adjust to particularly large leaps forward in time, suggests new research// from the University of Massachusetts Amherst that models circadian rhythms in rats. To transition smoothly to a different time zone, the researchers recommend advancing in chunks of not more than four hours, thus allowing the body’s clocks to remain coordinated. The work also has implications for rotational shift workers, such as nurses and airline attendants, as some shifts will be much harder for the body to adjust to than others.

The body’s sleep and wakefulness patterns are just two of the physiological processes that run on a roughly 24-hour-cycle, or circadian clock, explains Siegelmann. These and other processes are coordinated by the master pacemaker, or clock, an area of the brain with a natural cycle that is approximately 24 hours long. In mammals, the master clock is a group of cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which lies at the base of the hypothalamus. The SCN receives information on daylight sent from the eyes’ optic nerve and can be reset by environmental cues such as light.

Recent research suggests that every cell in the body actually has its own clock—liver cells prepare for digestion at particular times of day; patterns of hormone production and brain activity exhibit cyclic peaks and valleys, says Siegelmann.

“The circadian system is really fundamental, it affects our behavior, our physiology and emotions,” she says. “The clock organizes the whole body into a very nice dance, and it organizes people together into a larger social orchestra.”

The so-called “local clocks” have natural circadian cycles that range from 21 to 26 hours, says Siegelmann. They are synchronized by the SCN, but the pathways and mechanisms by which this coordination happens aren’t fully understood. Evidence has recently emerged that the SCN itself is compartmen
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