New York University Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Navigation Skip to Sub Navigation

NYU Biologists Uncover Dynamic Between Biological Clock and Neuronal Activity

September 25, 2012
35

Biologists at New York University have uncovered one way that biological clocks control neuronal activity—a discovery that sheds new light on sleep-wake cycles and offers potential new directions for research into therapies to address sleep disorders and jetlag.

“The findings answer a significant question—how biological clocks drive the activity of clock neurons, which, in turn, regulate behavioral rhythms,” explained Justin Blau, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Biology and the study’s senior author.

Their findings appear in the Journal of Biological Rhythms.

Scientists have known that our biological clocks control neuronal activity. But not previously understood is how this process occurs—that is, how does information from biological clocks drive rhythms in the electrical activity of pacemaker neurons that, in turn, drives daily rhythms?

To understand this mechanism, the researchers examined the biological, or circadian, clocks of Drosophila fruit flies, which are commonly used for research in this area. Earlier studies of “clock genes” in fruit flies allowed the identification of similarly functioning genes in humans.

In their study, the researchers focused on eight master pacemaker neurons located in the central brain —these neurons set the timing of the daily transitions between sleep and wake in the fly. Specifically, they were able to isolate these neurons from animals and identify sets of genes differentially expressed between dawn and dusk.

In a series of follow-up experiments, they concentrated on one gene, Ir, whose expression was found to be much higher at dusk than at dawn and much more highly expressed in pacemaker neurons than in the rest of the brain. Ir encodes a potassium channel that helps set the resting state of neurons – and so its rhythmic expression makes it an excellent candidate to help link the biological clock to pacemaker neuron activity. High levels of Ir expression at dusk should make it much harder for pacemaker neurons to signal than the low levels seen at dawn, a finding that fits with earlier studies showing that pacemaker neurons fire more at dawn than at dusk.

The authors also found that genetic manipulations that either increase or decrease Ir levels affect behavioral rhythms. Perhaps more interestingly, these were also associated with changes in the timing and strength of oscillations in the core clock.

“Biology is never as simple as we imagine it will be,” explained Blau. “We were looking for an output of the biological clock that would link the core clock to neuronal activity. Ir seems to do this, but it also, remarkably, feeds back to regulate the core clock itself. Feedback loops seem to be deeply engrained into the biological clock and presumably help these clocks work so well.”

The study’s other co-authors were: Marc Ruben, a doctoral candidate; Mark Drapeau, a former postdoctoral researcher; and Dogukan Mizrak, a doctoral candidate. The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
Arts and Science, Research, Faculty

Type: Press Release

Press Contact: James Devitt | (212) 998-6808

NYU Biologists Uncover Dynamic Between Biological Clock and Neuronal Activity

NYU biologists have uncovered one way that biological clocks control neuronal activity—a discovery that sheds new light on sleep-wake cycles and offers potential new directions for research into therapies to address sleep disorders and jetlag. ©iStockPhoto.com/Jacobs Media Services.


Search News



NYU In the News

Entrepreneurship Lab Opens at NYU

Crain’s New York Business covered the opening of the Mark and Debra Leslie Entrepreneurial eLab, which will be the headquarters for NYU’s Entrepreneurial Institute and all of the University’s programs aimed at promoting innovation and startups.

A Globalizer for N.Y.U. in Abu Dhabi

The New York Times profiled Bill Bragin who will become the first executive artistic director of NYU Abu Dhabi’s new performing arts center.

Think Tank to Ponder a Future for Ballet

The New York Times profiled Jennifer Homans, the director of NYU’s new Center for Ballet and the Arts.

The Brilliant Ten: Jonathan Viventi Builds Devices That Decode Thoughts

Popular Science named Assistant Bioengineering Professor Jonathan Viventi as one of its “brilliant ten” for his research into brain implants that could one day halt epileptic episodes:

Living and Leaving the Dream: Adrian Cardenas’ Journey from the Major Leagues to College

The New York Times ran a feature on Adrian Cardenas, a former major league baseball player who is now studying philosophy and creating writing at NYU.

NYU Footer