The environmental photoperiod regulates the synthesis of melatonin by the pineal gland, which in turn induces daily and seasonal adjustments in behavioral and physiological state. The mechanisms by which melatonin mediates these effects are not known, but accumulating data suggest that melatonin modulates a circadian biological clock, either directly or indirectly via neural inputs. The hypothesis that melatonin acts directly at the level of the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a central mammalian circadian pacemaker, was tested in a rat brain slice preparation maintained in vitro for 2-3 days. Exposure of the SCN to melatonin for 1 h late in the subjective day or early subjective night induced a significant advance in the SCN electrical activity rhythm; at other times melatonin was without apparent effect. These results demonstrate that melatonin can directly reset this circadian clock during the period surrounding the day-night transition.