The role of the circadian system in fractal neurophysiological control

Benjamin R. Pittman-Polletta, Frank A.J.L. Scheer, Matthew P. Butler, Steven A. Shea, Kun Hu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Many neurophysiological variables such as heart rate, motor activity, and neural activity are known to exhibit intrinsic fractal fluctuations - similar temporal fluctuation patterns at different time scales. These fractal patterns contain information about health, as many pathological conditions are accompanied by their alteration or absence. In physical systems, such fluctuations are characteristic of critical states on the border between randomness and order, frequently arising from nonlinear feedback interactions between mechanisms operating on multiple scales. Thus, the existence of fractal fluctuations in physiology challenges traditional conceptions of health and disease, suggesting that high levels of integrity and adaptability are marked by complex variability, not constancy, and are properties of a neurophysiological network, not individual components. Despite the subject's theoretical and clinical interest, the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying fractal regulation remain largely unknown. The recent discovery that the circadian pacemaker (suprachiasmatic nucleus) plays a crucial role in generating fractal patterns in motor activity and heart rate sheds an entirely new light on both fractal control networks and the function of this master circadian clock, and builds a bridge between the fields of circadian biology and fractal physiology. In this review, we sketch the emerging picture of the developing interdisciplinary field of fractal neurophysiology by examining the circadian system's role in fractal regulation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)873-894
Number of pages22
JournalBiological Reviews
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2013


  • Circadian biology
  • Fractal fluctuations
  • Fractal physiology
  • Heart rate
  • Nonlinear dynamics
  • Physiological control
  • Scale-invariance
  • Spontaneous motor activity
  • Suprachiasmatic nucleus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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