Background: Virtually all living organisms have evolved a circadian (~24 hour) clock that controls physiological and behavioural processes with exquisite precision throughout the day/night cycle. The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which generates these ~24 h rhythms in mammals, consists of several thousand neurons. Each neuron contains a gene-regulatory network generating molecular oscillations, and the individual neuron oscillations are synchronised by intercellular coupling, presumably via neurotransmitters. Although this basic mechanism is currently accepted and has been recapitulated in mathematical models, several fundamental questions about the design principles of the SCN remain little understood. For example, a remarkable property of the SCN is that the phase of the SCN rhythm resets rapidly after a 'jet lag' type experiment, i.e. when the light/dark (LD) cycle is abruptly advanced or delayed by several hours.
Results: Here, we describe an extensive parameter optimization of a previously constructed simplified model of the SCN in order to further understand its design principles. By examining the top 50 solutions from the parameter optimization, we show that the neurotransmitters' role in generating the molecular circadian rhythms is extremely important. In addition, we show that when a neurotransmitter drives the rhythm of a system of coupled damped oscillators, it exhibits very robust synchronization and is much more easily entrained to light/dark cycles. We were also able to recreate in our simulations the fast rhythm resetting seen after a 'jet lag' type experiment.
Conclusion: Our work shows that a careful exploration of parameter space for even an extremely simplified model of the mammalian clock can reveal unexpected behaviours and non-trivial predictions. Our results suggest that the neurotransmitter feedback loop plays a crucial role in the robustness and phase resetting properties of the mammalian clock, even at the single neuron level.