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Study notes

Biopsychology: Biological Rhythms - Endogenous Pacemakers & Exogenous Zeitgebers

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Biological rhythms are regulated by endogenous pacemakers, which are the body’s internal biological clocks, and exogenous zeitgebers, which are external cues, including light, that help to regulate the internal biological clocks. 

Endogenous Pacemakers

Endogenous pacemakers are internal mechanisms that govern biological rhythms, in particular, the circadian sleep-wake cycle. Although endogenous pacemakers are internal biological clocks, they can be altered and affected by the environment. For example, although the circadian sleep-wave cycle will continue to function without natural cues from light, research suggests that light is required to reset the cycle every 24 hours. (See Siffre and Aschoff & Weber, above)

The most important endogenous pacemaker is the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is closely linked to the pineal gland, both of which are influential in maintaining the circadian sleep/wake cycle.

The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which lies in the hypothalamus, is the main endogenous pacemaker (or master clock). It controls other biological rhythms, as it links to other areas of the brain responsible for sleep and arousal. The SCN also receives information about light levels (an exogenous zeitgeber) from the optic nerve, which sets the circadian rhythm so that it is in synchronisation with the outside world, e.g. day and night.

The SNC sends signals to the pineal gland, which leads to an increase in the production of melatonin at night, helping to induce sleep. The SCN and pineal glands work together as endogenous pacemakers; however, their activity is responsive to the external cue of light. Put simply:

Exogenous Zeitgebers

As outlined above, exogenous zeitgebers influence biological rhythms: these can be described as environmental events that are responsible for resetting the biological clock of an organism. They can include social cues such as meal times and social activities, but the most important zeitgeber is light, which is responsible for resetting the body clock each day, keeping it on a 24-hour cycle.

The SNC contains receptors that are sensitive to light and this external cue is used to synchronise the body’s internal organs and glands. Melanopsin, which is a protein in the eye, is sensitive to light and carries the signals to the SCN to set the 24-hour daily body cycle. In addition, social cues, such as mealtimes, can also act as zeitgebers and humans can compensate for the lack of natural light, by using social cues instead. 

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