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See Inside A Matter of Time

Times of Our Lives [Preview]

Whether they're counting minutes, months or years, biological clocks help to keep our brains and bodies running on schedule

In Brief

 

  • In the brain, a stopwatch can track seconds, minutes and hours.
  • Another timepiece in the brain, more a clock than a stopwatch, synchronizes many bodily functions with day and night.
  • This same clock may account for seasonal affective disorder.
  • A molecular hourglass that governs the number of times a cell can divide might put a limit on longevity.

 

THE LATE BIOPSYCHOLOGIST JOHN GIBBON called time the “primordial context”: a fact of life that has been felt by all organisms in every era. For the morning glory that spreads its petals at dawn, for geese flying south in autumn, for locusts swarming every 17 years and even for lowly slime molds sporing in daily cycles, timing is everything. In human bodies, biological clocks keep track of seconds, minutes, days, months and years. They govern the split-second moves of a tennis serve and account for the trauma of jet lag, monthly surges of menstrual hormones and bouts of wintertime blues. Cellular chronometers may even decide when your time is up. Life ticks, then you die.

The pacemakers involved are as different as stopwatches and sundials. Some are accurate and inflexible, others less reliable but subject to conscious control. Some are set by planetary cycles, others by molecular ones. They are essential to the most sophisticated tasks the brain and body perform. And timing mechanisms offer insights into aging and disease. Cancer, Parkinson's disease, seasonal depression and attention-deficit disorder have all been linked to defects in biological clocks.

The physiology of these timepieces is not completely understood. But neurologists and other clock researchers have begun to answer some of the most pressing questions raised by human experience in the fourth dimension. Why, for example, a watched pot never boils. Why time flies when you're having fun. Why all-nighters can give you indigestion. Or why people live longer than hamsters. It's only a matter of time before clock studies resolve even more profound quandaries of temporal existence.

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