The circadian clock in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus is the central pacemaker driving rhythms in endocrine physiology. Gonadal steroid hormones affect behavioral rhythms and clock gene expression. However, the impact of fluctuating ovarian steroid levels during the estrous cycle on internal circadian organization remains to be determined. Further, it is not known if steroid hormone depletion, as in menopause, affects the timing system. To determine the influence of estrous cycle stage and steroid depletion on circadian organization, we measured clock gene expression in the SCN and peripheral tissues from cycling and ovariectomized (OVX) period1-luciferase (per1-luc) transgenic rats. The estrous cycle had modest effects on mean phase and phase distribution of per1-luc expression in the SCN. Surprisingly, peak per1-luc expression in the SCN was widely distributed mainly at night, regardless of cycle stage, an effect eliminated by OVX. Treatment of SCN tissue explants with ovarian steroids did not significantly affect per1-luc expression, suggesting that brain regions outside the SCN mediate the phasic effects of steroids. Our data demonstrate that estrous cycle stage has tissue-dependent effects on the phase of per1-luc expression, phase synchrony among oscillators, and the phase relationship between some peripheral clocks and the light-dark cycle. They also reveal that steroid hormone depletion following OVX alters the timing system, suggesting that the decline in hormone levels, common during the transition to menopause, may be associated with irregular internal circadian organization. This effect on the timing system could contribute to the behavioral and physiological changes associated with this transition.
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Vol. 89 • No. 2