Because we can observe oscillation within individual cells and in the tissue as a whole, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) presents a unique system in the mammalian brain for the analysis of individual cells and the networks of which they are a part. While dispersed cells of the SCN sustain circadian oscillations in isolation, they are unstable oscillators that require network interactions for robust cycling. Using cluster analysis to assess bioluminescence in acute brain slices from PERIOD2::Luciferase (PER2::LUC) knockin mice, and immunochemistry of SCN from animals harvested at various circadian times, we assessed the spatiotemporal activation patterns of PER2 to explore the emergence of a coherent oscillation at the tissue level. The results indicate that circadian oscillation is characterized by a stable daily cycle of PER2 expression involving orderly serial activation of specific SCN subregions, followed by a silent interval, with substantial symmetry between the left and right side of the SCN. The biological significance of the clusters identified in living slices was confirmed by co-expression of LUC and PER2 in fixed, immunochemically stained brain sections, with the spatiotemporal pattern of LUC expression resembling that revealed in the cluster analysis of bioluminescent slices. We conclude that the precise timing of PER2 expression within individual neurons is dependent on their location within the nucleus, and that small groups of neurons within the SCN give rise to distinctive and identifiable subregions. We propose that serial activation of these subregions is the basis of robustness and resilience of the daily rhythm of the SCN.
© 2011 The Authors. European Journal of Neuroscience © 2011 Federation of European Neuroscience Societies and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.