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PLoS One. 2009;4(3):e4976. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004976. Epub 2009 Mar 23.

Phase shifting capacity of the circadian pacemaker determined by the SCN neuronal network organization.

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Department of Molecular Cell Biology, Laboratory for Neurophysiology, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, The Netherlands.



In mammals, a major circadian pacemaker that drives daily rhythms is located in the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN), at the base of the hypothalamus. The SCN receive direct light input via the retino-hypothalamic tract. Light during the early night induces phase delays of circadian rhythms while during the late night it leads to phase advances. The effects of light on the circadian system are strongly dependent on the photoperiod to which animals are exposed. An explanation for this phenomenon is currently lacking.


We recorded running wheel activity in C57 mice and observed large amplitude phase shifts in short photoperiods and small shifts in long photoperiods. We investigated whether these different light responses under short and long days are expressed within the SCN by electrophysiological recordings of electrical impulse frequency in SCN slices. Application of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) induced sustained increments in electrical activity that were not significantly different in the slices from long and short photoperiods. These responses led to large phase shifts in slices from short days and small phase shifts in slices from long days. An analysis of neuronal subpopulation activity revealed that in short days the amplitude of the rhythm was larger than in long days.


The data indicate that the photoperiodic dependent phase responses are intrinsic to the SCN. In contrast to earlier predictions from limit cycle theory, we observed large phase shifting responses in high amplitude rhythms in slices from short days, and small shifts in low amplitude rhythms in slices from long days. We conclude that the photoperiodic dependent phase responses are determined by the SCN and propose that synchronization among SCN neurons enhances the phase shifting capacity of the circadian system.

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