Aging is associated with a variety of alterations in circadian rhythms, including changes in the response to environmental stimuli. The underlying causes for these age-related changes in the circadian system remain unknown. Recent studies have demonstrated that light induces the expression of Fos and phosphorylation of the cyclic-AMP response element-binding protein in the rodent suprachiasmatic nuclei, the location of a master circadian pacemaker in mammals, suggesting that these transcription factors may mediate the effects of light on the circadian clock. The purpose of this study was to determine the effects of aging upon light-induced phase-shifting of circadian locomotor activity rhythms, Fos protein expression and cyclic-AMP response element-binding protein phosphorylation in the suprachiasmatic nuclei. Young (three to four months) and old (18-22 months) male golden hamsters free-running in constant darkness were exposed to 5-min monochromatic light pulses of different irradiance levels, at circadian time 19, after which either steady-state phase shifts of locomotor activity rhythms were measured, or else immunocytochemistry for Fos or for phospho-cyclic-AMP response element-binding protein was performed. Old hamsters were approximately 20 times less sensitive to the phase-shifting effects of light on the activity rhythm, and the photic irradiance threshold for Fos-like immunoreactivity induction in the suprachiasmatic nuclei was elevated when compared to young animals. Aging was also associated with a deficit in cyclic-AMP response element-binding protein phosphorylation by light. These data indicate that there are dramatic changes in light-activated molecular responses in the suprachiasmatic nuclei of old hamsters, and suggest that these molecular changes may underlie age-related changes in the effects of light on the circadian clock system.
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