Intrinsic, nondeterministic circadian rhythm generation in identified mammalian neurons

Alexis B. Webb, Nikhil Angelo, James E. Huettner, Erik D. Herzog

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162 Scopus citations


Circadian rhythms are modeled as reliable and self-sustained oscillations generated by single cells. The mammalian suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) keeps near 24-h time in vivo and in vitro, but the identity of the individual cellular pacemakers is unknown. We tested the hypothesis that circadian cycling is intrinsic to a unique class of SCN neurons by measuring firing rate or Period2 gene expression in single neurons. We found that fully isolated SCN neurons can sustain circadian cycling for at least 1 week. Plating SCN neurons at <100 cells/mm2 eliminated synaptic inputs and revealed circadian neurons that contained arginine vasopressin (AVP) or vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP) or neither. Surprisingly, arrhythmic neurons (nearly 80% of recorded neurons) also expressed these neuropeptides. Furthermore, neurons were observed to lose or gain circadian rhythmicity in these dispersed cell cultures, both spontaneously and in response to forskolin stimulation. In SCN explants treated with tetrodotoxin to block spike-dependent signaling, neurons gained or lost circadian cycling over many days. The rate of PERIOD2 protein accumulation on the previous cycle reliably predicted the spontaneous onset of arrhythmicity. We conclude that individual SCN neurons can generate circadian oscillations; however, there is no evidence for a specialized or anatomically localized class of cell-autonomous pacemakers. Instead, these results indicate that AVP, VIP, and other SCN neurons are intrinsic but unstable circadian oscillators that rely on network interactions to stabilize their otherwise noisy cycling.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16493-16498
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number38
StatePublished - Sep 22 2009


  • Luciferase
  • Pacemaker
  • Period gene
  • Suprachiasmatic nucleus
  • Vasoactive intestinal polypeptide


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