The suprachiasmatic nucleus

Curr Biol. 2018 Aug 6;28(15):R816-R822. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.06.052.


Like it or not, your two suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) govern your life: from when you wake up and fall asleep, to when you feel hungry or can best concentrate. Each is composed of approximately 10,000 tightly interconnected neurons, and the pair sit astride the mid-line third ventricle of the hypothalamus, immediately dorsal to the optic chiasm (Figure 1A). Together, they constitute the master circadian clock of the mammalian brain. They generate an internal representation of solar time that is conveyed to every cell in our body and in this way they co-ordinate the daily cycles of physiology and behaviour that adapt us to the twenty-four hour world. The temporary discomfort associated with jetlag is a reminder of the importance of this daily programme, but there is growing recognition that its chronic disruption carries a cost for health of far greater scale. In this primer, we shall briefly review the historical identification of the SCN as the master circadian clock, and then discuss it on three different levels: the cell-autonomous SCN, the SCN as a cellular network and, finally, the SCN as circadian orchestrator. We shall focus on the intrinsic electrical and transcriptional properties of the SCN and how these properties are thought to form an input to, and an output from, its intrinsic cellular clockwork. Second, we shall describe the anatomical arrangement of the SCN, how its sub-regions are delineated by different neuropeptides, and how SCN neurons communicate with each other via these neuropeptides and the neurotransmitter γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Finally, we shall discuss how the SCN functions as a circadian oscillator that dictates behaviour, and how intersectional genetic approaches are being used to try to unravel the specific contributions to pacemaking of specific SCN cell populations.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Circadian Clocks / physiology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Suprachiasmatic Nucleus / physiology*