The mammalian circadian pacemaker, the hypothalamic suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), has two subdivisions. The core is located above the optic chiasm, receives primary and secondary visual afferents, and contains neurons producing vasoactive intestinal polypeptide and gastrin-releasing peptide. The shell largely surrounds the core, receives input from nonvisual sources and contains neurons producing arginine vasopressin and calretinin. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that SCN efferent projections are topographically organized with respect to the subdivision of origin. Injections of retrograde tracers were placed in major sites of efferent termination, described from prior studies that used anterograde tracers (Watts and Swanson,  J. Comp. Neurol. 258:230-252; Watts et al.  J. Comp. Neurol. 258:204-229). After retrograde tracer injections in the medial preoptic area, dorsomedial and paraventricular hypothalamic nuclei, bed nucleus of stria terminalis, paraventricular thalamic nucleus, zona incerta, and medial subparaventricular zone, retrogradely labeled SCN cells are clustered in the shell with few labeled neurons in the core. After injections centered in the lateral subparaventricular zone, peri-suprachiasmatic region, lateral septum, or ventral tuberal area, the majority of neuronal label is in the core with moderate to sparse neuronal label in the shell. Both subdivisions are labeled after injections in the paratenial thalamic nucleus. The same pattern of retrograde labeling is found with four tracers, cholera toxin-beta subunit, Fluoro-Gold, the Bartha strain of pseudorabies virus, and biotinylated dextran amine. These data extend our understanding of the significance of the division of the SCN into shell and core by demonstrating that the subdivisions differ in the pattern of projections. Together with prior observations that the subdivisions differ with respect to afferents, local connections, and neuroactive substances, the present study provides an anatomic basis for discrete control of circadian function by the SCN core and shell. In this novel view, the nature of the signal conveyed to areas receiving core or shell projections varies as a function of the subdivision from which innervation is derived.
Copyright 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.