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The tick tock of the master clock

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The tick tock of the master clock

Each of us has a biological clock — a region in the brain that regulates every bodily process. How does that clock communicate and track those processes, and how does it affect overall health?

That’s what Dr. Jennifer Evans, assistant professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Health Sciences, hopes to answer.

Evans received a $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of biological rhythms on health, specifically as they relate to neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and depression. “Our master clock is actually made up of about 20,000 neurons that need to coordinate,” Evans says. “Disruption of this network is linked to a number of diseases, like depression, obesity and cancer.”

Changes and decisions made in our daily lives can disrupt the process and compromise function of our master clock. “Jetlag is one of the most common examples of master clock disruption,” Evans explains. “When you travel across time zones, the time of day is at a mismatch with your internal clock, and that means your clock isn’t programming what it needs to at a certain time.” Evans says disruptions like jetlag are short-term and usually don’t cause lasting effects; our bodies adjust. Where major health problems occur is in long-term, chronic disruptions, like those suffered by shift workers (who represent about 15 percent of American wage earners) or even disruptions through increased use of smartphones and tablets. “Our phones, tablets and computers produce light, and we tend to use these devices at night when our body expects less light input,” Evans says. “This can erroneously shift our clock, and prolonged use can cause major shifts that could lead to health issues.”

Evans hopes that by learning how the master clock communicates, we can start to regulate behaviors that cause disruptions and learn how healthier habits can reset and regulate our biological functions. — JL

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