The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is the principal circadian clock of the brain, directing daily cycles of behavior and physiology. SCN neurons contain a cell-autonomous transcription- based clockwork but, in turn, circuit-level interactions synchronize the 20,000 or so SCN neurons into a robust and coherent daily timer. Synchronization requires neuropeptide signaling, regulated by a reciprocal interdependence between the molecular clockwork and rhythmic electrical activity, which in turn depends on a daytime Na+ drive and nighttime K+ drag. Recent studies exploiting intersectional genetics have started to identify the pacemaking roles of particular neuronal groups in the SCN. They support the idea that timekeeping involves nonlinear and hierarchical computations that create and incorporate timing information through the interactions between key groups of neurons within the SCN circuit. The field is now poised to elucidate these computations, their underlying cellular mechanisms, and how the SCN clock interacts with subordinate circadian clocks across the brain to determine the timing and efficiency of the sleep–wake cycle, and how perturbations of this coherence contribute to neurological and psychiatric illness.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbera027706
JournalCold Spring Harbor perspectives in biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2017


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