A circadian rhythm is an approximate daily periodicity, a roughly-24-hour cycle in the biochemical, physiological or behavioural processes of living beings, including plants, animals, fungi and cyanobacteria. The term "circadian", coined by Franz Halberg, comes from the Latin circa, "around", and diem or dies, "day", meaning literally "approximately one day." The formal study of biological temporal rhythms such as daily, tidal, weekly, seasonal, and annual rhythms, is called chronobiology.
Circadian rhythms are endogenously generated, and can be entrained by external cues, called Zeitgebers. The primary one is daylight. These rhythms allow organisms to anticipate and prepare for precise and regular environmental changes.
The earliest known account of a circadian rhythm dates from the 4th century BC, when Androsthenes, in descriptions of the marches of Alexander the Great, described diurnal leaf movements of the tamarind tree. The first modern observation of endogenous circadian oscillation was by the French scientist Jean-Jacques d'Ortous de Mairan in the 1700s; he noted that 24-hour patterns in the movement of the leaves of the plant Mimosa pudica continued even when the plants were isolated from external stimuli.
In 1918 J. S. Szymanski showed that animals are capable of maintaining 24-hour activity patterns in the absence of external cues such as light and changes in temperature.
Three general criteria of circadian rhythms are necessary to differentiate genuinely endogenous rhythms from coincidental or apparent ones: the rhythms persist in the absence of cues, they can be brought to match the local time, and will do so in a precise manner over a range of temperatures.
- The rhythm persists in constant conditions (for example, constant dark) with a period of about 24 hours. The rationale for this criterion is to distinguish circadian rhythms from those "apparent" rhythms which merely are responses to external periodic cues. A rhythm cannot be declared to be endogenous unless it has been tested in conditions without external periodic input.
- The rhythm is temperature-compensated, i.e. it maintains the same period over a range of temperatures. The rationale for this criterion is to distinguish circadian rhythms from other biological rhythms arising due to the circular nature of a reaction pathway. At a low enough or high enough temperature, the period of a circular reaction may reach 24 hours, but it will be merely coincidental.
- The rhythm can be reset by exposure to an external stimulus. The rationale for this criterion is to distinguish circadian rhythms from other imaginable endogenous 24-hour rhythms that are immune to resetting by external cues and hence do not serve the purpose of estimating the local time. Travel across time zones illustrates the necessity of the ability to adjust the biological clock so that it can reflect the local time and anticipate what will happen next.
Circadian rhythms are important in determining the sleeping and feeding patterns of all animals, including human beings. There are clear patterns of core body temperature, brain wave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration and other biological activities linked to this daily cycle. In addition, photoperiodism, the physiological reaction of organisms to the length of day or night, is vital to both plants and animals, and the circadian system plays a role in the measurement and interpretation of daylength.
Disruption to rhythms in the longer term is believed to have significant adverse health consequences on peripheral organs outside the brain, particularly in the development or exacerbation of cardiovascular disease. The suppression of melatonin production associated with the disruption of the circadian rhythm may increase the risk of developing cancer.
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