Evolution of the European Biological Rhythms Society

The study of biological rhythms has become a mainstream discipline in biological sciences in the last 15-20 years. Thus now is an appropriate time to consider its development in a European context. Central to this development was the European Pineal Study Group (EPSG) a small but international society founded by Paul Pevet and Johannes Ariëns Kappers in 1976. In time the EPSG became the European Pineal Society (EPS, 1990), then the European Pineal and Biological Rhythms Society (EPBRS, 2000) and finally the European Biological Rhythms Society (EBRS, 2005)

It is remarkable to note that most of the active research areas today in the broad field of biological rhythms were addressed in the first publication of the EPSG conference proceedings (Prog. Brain Res. Vol. 52, 1979). This continuity is likely due to the importance of the pineal hormone melatonin as a rhythm 'marker', a photoneuroendocrine transducer molecule and as the first recognized chronobiotic (a drug to shift rhythms). The history of such a scientific society provides a context to understand the evolution and development of a discipline. Scientific progress (and the role of scientists) is not separable from its societal and historical context and this story will thus be placed in this context.

Research on the pineal (epiphysis cerebri) has a very long history, starting about 300 BC with the discovery of the organ. Till the middle of the 19th century, pineal interest was characterized by much speculation especially due to the strong influence of the prevailing philosophical system and also by the very restricted means of investigation. Then interest in the pineal organ was very much revived, first in connection with the development of comparative anatomy and then by the discovery of the endocrine organs. A landmark is the discovery of an association between pineal tumours and precocious puberty in young girls (Hubner 1898). The interpretation was that destruction of the gland by the tumour induced precocious puberty because the pineal produced normally an antigonadotropic substance blocking pubertal development. These data and their interpretation were apparently confirmed in a study performed 55 years later (Kitay, 1954). We know now that this interpretation was incorrect (in fact ectopic secretion of HCG from the pineal tumour was responsible), but this concept dominated the pineal world until the end of the 1970s. Numerous scientists in the 1950s to the 1970s carried out an enormous amount of work to try to identify (without success) this antigonadotropic agent (from memory I wish to cite I. Ebels, S. Milcu, A. Moskowska and L. Thieblot). Whilst many publications appeared at this time on the anatomy and cell biology of the pineal, the failure to identify the pineal 'antigonadal' hormone, probably explains the lack of impact of pineal research. However in 1963, J. Ariëns Kappers decided to organize in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) an international round-table conference on the epiphysis cerebri, at which, for the first time, most scientists working on the pineal were present (see annex 1). Nowadays, when 5 to 10 international symposia are organized each year in our field (pineal and biological rhythms), it is difficult to appreciate the importance of this event. It is the organization of this meeting in 1963 that led to the acceptance of the pineal as an endocrine organ of some importance (the next meeting in this field was organized in Jerusalem in 1977, 15 years later!). The success of the Proceedings of this meeting (Structure and functions of the Epiphysis Cerebri, J. Ariêns Kappers and J.P. Schadé, eds, Progress in Brain Research, Vol 10, 1965) confirmed this impact and for a long period of time this book was the reference for pineal research.

We can date from the end of the 1950s/beginning of the 1960s the start of the modern era in pineal research. Numerous scientists started to be involved actively in this research field and important discoveries or developments were published (e.g. chemical identification of melatonin as a pineal hormone –A.B. Lerner 1958- isolation and identification of the enzymes involved in the melatonin synthesis –J. Axelrod's group 1960-1965- D. Klein 1972- the demonstration that the pineal was involved in seasonal reproduction –R.J. Reiter 's group, 1965 - the first bioassay to measure melatonin C.L. Ralph and H.I. Lynch 1970-1972- followed by the first development of a radioimmunoassay for melatonin –J.Arendt, 1975- etc.)

In the years 1975-1976, the need to organize our scientific community was evident and in autumn 1976, I took the liberty of suggesting to Prof J. Ariëns Kappers (my mentor at that time) the establishment of an association of scientists working in the field of pinealogy. At first he was doubtful whether such a plan would have any sense, the number of scientific associations being already so large, and moreover pineal research could be considered as a special branch of different disciplines of the natural sciences. Then considering that cooperation and mutual support of workers in this rapidly expanding field could possibly be useful, he accepted the idea and encouraged me to pursue my suggestion. I must also say that when Prof I. Nir from the Hebrew University announced the organization of the second international symposium on the pineal in November 1977, in Jerusalem, it was evident that a 'pineal group' could be fruitful for numerous colleagues. Consequently, in November 1976, I sent a letter to all European scientists, known to be working on or to have shown interest in the pineal organ, in order to ascertain whether they would support the foundation of a European Pineal Study Group, explaining its purpose and advantages (see annex 2). We received many positive replies and, in consequence, the foundation the EPSG was officially announced and the election of a Council organized in a second letter, dated January 1977 (see annex 3). All pinealogists who had shown interest by returning their application form for membership were considered founder members and formed the electorate. In March 1977, out of 49 candidates Drs J. Ariëns-Kappers, J.P. Collin, I. Ebels, L.Martini, B.Mess, A. Moszkowska, I. Nir, A. Oksche, L. Vollrath and myself were elected Council members by postal ballot. In May of the same year this first Council nominated a Board in which J. Ariëns Kappers acted as President, A. Oksche as vice-President and myself as secretary-treasurer. The first meeting of the Council was held in Jerusalem on November 15, 1977, during the International Symposium on the Pineal Gland. The Council approved the statutes and by-laws for the EPSG (see in the EPSG-newsletter n°1, January 1978). In January 1978, no less than 182 pinealogists from all over Europe were listed as active members. The first colloquium of the EPSG (organizers J. Ariëns kappers and P. Pévet) was held in Amsterdam from November 20 to 24 in 1978. It gave the 95 participants a good opportunity to learn what was going on in pineal research in Europe. Again the success of the Proceedings of this first colloquium (The Pineal Gland of Vertebrates including Man, J. Ariëns Kappers and P. Pévet, eds, Progress in Brain Research, Vol 52, 1979) confirmed the considerable interest in this new scientific field. Subsequently, colloquia (now meetings) were organized every three years (1981, Giessen, Germany, A. Oksche; 1984, Pecs, Hungary, B. Mess, 1987, Modena, Italy, G.P. Trentini; 1990, Guildford, UK, J. Arendt; 1993, Copenhagen, Denmark, M. Moller; 1996, Sitges, Spain, S. Webb; 1999, Tours, France, P. Chemineau and B. Malpaux; 2002, Aberdeen, UK, P. Morgan; 2005, Frankfurt, Germany, H.W. Korf; 2009, Strasbourg, France, P. Pevet; 2011, Oxford, UK, R. Foster; 2013, Munich, Germany, T. Roenneberg.).

At that time (1977-1985) interest in biological rhythms was growing and the pineal gland by its exclusive position as a neurohumoral link between the environment and body physiology, took a central place in the so-called neurobiology of biological rhythms. Indeed it was during these years that 1) the nature of the pineal complex as a photoneuroendocrine structure within vertebrates was well established, 2) the role of the pineal in the transduction of photoperiodic information was first suggested and then demonstrated, 3) the duration of the nocturnal melatonin peak was shown to depend positively on the duration of the night, which was crucial for the demonstration that the brain (and the body) read photoperiod through the melatonin signal 4) the nocturnal melatonin signal was showed to be a circadian output of the clock so important for future clinical developments and 5) melatonin was shown to have chronobiotic and confirmed to have sleepiness-inducing properties in humans. (For more details, we refer to the chapter highlights of EPSG meetings on this web site). Within a few years the EPSG became a very active scientific group and quickly we realized that it was too small to accommodate such important scientific evolution in the field. In 1990, at the suggestion of J. Arendt, President of the EPSG (1987-1990) the general assembly of the group decided to transform the "study group" into a full scientific society, which implied more responsibilities and increased facilities (see EPS News. No.24. Dec 1990). The European Pineal Society (EPS) wished to be an open society and non-European scientists were accepted as members. In 1993 a modification of the statutes provided 2 places for non-European members on the council. This evolution was not finished. During this time pineal research played a central role in the physiology of seasonality. Moreover, largely due to the development of research on melatonin, the pineal became very important in circadian biology. Thus we considered converting our European Pineal Society into a European Biological Rhythms Society. After much discussion and a postal ballot, in October 2000 the EPS was renamed European Pineal and Biological Rhythms Society (EPBRS). This development was more than a change of name. It reflected the fact that the scope and the activities of our society had become much broader. Logically we have pursued the evolution to its end and at the general assembly of 2005, the "European Pineal and Biological Rhythms Society" became the "European Biological Rhythms Society" (EBRS). This name is now most appropriate. It also facilitates cooperation and/or association with other similar organizations throughout the world. For example in August 2009 in Strasbourg (France) the XI Congress of the EBRS was organized in association with the Japanese Society for Chronobiology, a partnership which was kept for the following meeting of the EBRS and personally I hope it will be continued in future.

From a scientific 'corner ' in 1977, we have joined the mainstream of biology and medicine and the EBRS is now a major player in the field of biological rhythms. From an historical and social point of view it is important to understand this evolution. Research on biological rhythms and especially on seasonal and circadian rhythms (without the pineal aspect) has a very long history. Historically, two major trends have characterized (and still characterize today to some extent) research on biological rhythms. One "school" (e.g; F. Halberg , L. Scheving , A. Reinberg), based on precise systematic studies of biological rhythms, defines temporal organization of functions with the aim to develop 1) greater efficiency of medical intervention 2) disease prevention and 3) optimizing drug dosage. For the proponents of this approach, this corresponds to an individualized scientific discipline (Chronobiology) with specific purposes and methodologies. The second school associated with, for example C.S. Pittendrigh and J. Aschoff, was interested primarily in the nature of biological rhythms. To understand how biological clocks work, and to describe the anatomical support for rhythm organization, were the key issues. In recent years, especially with the discovery of the molecular mechanisms of the clock, mechanistic studies of rhythms have greatly progressed and expanded. The EBRS deriving from a "study group" interested in the pineal and the brain was by "birth" concerned with the mechanistic approach, but at the same time the society, whatever its name happened to be, also welcomed and encouraged other approaches (anatomical, clinical and pharmaceutical ones especially). That broad perspective explains why today the EBRS, like the Society for Research on Biological Rhythms (SRBR) or the Japanese Society for Chronobiology, has become a dominant influence in the field. It should also be noted that in contrast to earlier societies (International Society for Chronobiology , European Society for Chronobiology, etc.) we use the term " Biological Rhythms " referring to the mechanistic approach. Science is however always moving and currently, by the systematic media coverage of data in science, the word "Chronobiology " has become an acceptable term for all aspects of biological rhythm research and the societies listed, with many others, old and new, national and international, came together in a International Federation of Societies for Chronobiology ( IFSC ).

Paul PévetFounding member (with J Ariëns Kappers) of the society, 1976Secretary-treasurer (1977-1990)President (1990-1996)

Annex 1

International roundtable conference on the epiphysis cerebri, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, July 1963.

Even though one year before Louis Thiéblot had sponsored a small international symposium at Clermont Ferrand, France (May, 1962), the Amsterdam conference is considered the first meeting where, for the first time, most scientists working on the pineal gland were present.

Annex 2

Copy of the letter sent in November 1976

Annex 3

Copy of the letter sent in January 1977


Annex 4

The first Council of the European Pineal Study Group (EPSG) at the Amsterdam meeting, 1978.

From left to right: J.P. Collin, P. Pevet, I. Nir, L. Vollrath, A. Oksche, J. Ariëns-Kappers, I. Ebels, B. Mess.


Annex 5

The Council of the European Pineal Study Group at the Giessen meeting, 1981

From left to right. In front: J. Arendt, I. Ebels, A. Oksche, J. Ariëns-Kappers
Second rank: B. Mess, M. Karasek, J.P. Collin, G.P. Trentini, L. Vollrath, P. Pévet


Annex 6

The Council of the European Pineal Study Group at the Pecs meeting, 1984

From left to right: M. Moller, M. Karasek, P. Pévet, J. Arendt, G.P. Trentini, A. Oksche, B.Mess
J. Ariëns-Kappers, M.G.M. Balemans, L. Vollrath, J.P. Collin


Annex 7

The Council of the European Pineal Study Group at the Modena meeting, 1987

From left to right M. Karasek, M. Moller, H. Illnerova, J. Falcon, R. Ruzsas, S. Steinlechner
P. Pévet, G.P. Trentini, L. Vollrath, J. Ariëns-Kappers, J. Arendt


Annex 8

The Council of the European Pineal Society at the Guildford meeting, 1990

From left to right in front: H. Illnerova, J. Arendt, P. Pévet, S. Webb, L. Martinet
Second rank: J. Ariëns-Kappers, M. Hastings, S. Steinlechner; M. Moller, A. Lewinski


Annex 9

The Council of the European Pineal Society at the Copenhagen meeting, 1993

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Annex 10

The Council of the European Pineal Society at the Sitges meeting, 1996

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Annex 11

The Council of the European Pineal Society at the Tours meeting, 1999 

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Annex 12

The Council of the European Pineal and Biological Rhythms Society at the Aberdeen meeting, 2002

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Annex 13

The Council of the European Biological Rhythms Society at the Frankfurt meeting, 2005

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Annex 14

The Council of the European Biological Rhythms Society at the Strasbourg meeting, 2009

From left to right: H.W. Korf, J. Arendt, T. Yoshimura, J. Stehle, A. Sumova, V. Simonneaux, R. Foster, E. Maywood, D.J. Skene, A. Kalsbeek, P. Pévet image009

Annex 15 

The Council of the European Biological Rhythms Society 2012 (election organized by postal ballot)

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Prize Winners of Aschoff's Rule

Historical Archives

History of rhythms publications

Colin S. Pittendrigh Repository

Video History Collection

Landmarks of circadian research