The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is a circadian oscillator entrained to the day/night cycle via input from the retina. Serotonin (5-HT) afferents to the SCN modulate retinal signals via activation of 5-HT1B receptors, decreasing responsiveness to light. Consequently, 5-HT1B receptor knockout (KO) mice entrain to the day/night cycle with delayed activity onsets. Since circulating corticosterone levels exhibit a robust daily rhythm peaking around activity onset, we asked whether delayed entrainment of activity onsets affects rhythmic corticosterone secretion. Wheel-running activity and plasma corticosterone were monitored in mice housed under several different lighting regimens. Both duration of the light:dark cycle (T cycle) and the duration of light within that cycle was altered. 5-HT1B KO mice that entrained to a 9.5L:13.5D (short day in a T = 23 h) cycle with activity onsets delayed more than 4 h after light offset exhibited a corticosterone rhythm in phase with activity rhythms but reduced 50% in amplitude compared to animals that initiated daily activity <4 h after light offset. Wild type mice in 8L:14D (short day in a T = 22 h) conditions with highly delayed activity onsets also exhibited a 50% reduction in peak plasma corticosterone levels. Exogenous adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) stimulation in animals exhibiting highly delayed entrainment suggested that the endogenous rhythm of adrenal responsiveness to ACTH remained aligned with SCN-driven behavioral activity. Circadian clock gene expression in the adrenal cortex of these same animals suggested that the adrenal circadian clock was also aligned with SCN-driven behavior. Under T cycles <24 h, altered circadian entrainment to short day (winter-like) conditions, manifest as long delays in activity onset after light offset, severely reduces the amplitude of the diurnal rhythm of plasma corticosterone. Such a pronounced reduction in the glucocorticoid rhythm may alter rhythmic gene expression in the central nervous system and in peripheral organs contributing to an array of potential pathophysiologies.
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