• circadian rhythms;
  • light response;
  • patch-clamp electrophysiology;
  • photoentrainment;
  • retinal ganglion cells;
  • trp channels


In mammals, light entrainment of the circadian clock, located in the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN), requires retinal input. Traditional rod and cone photoreceptors, however, are not required. Instead, the SCN-projecting retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) function as autonomous photoreceptors and exhibit light responses independent of rod- and cone-driven input. Using whole-cell patch-clamp recording techniques, we have investigated the morphological and electrophysiological properties of this unique class of RGCs. Although SCN-projecting RGCs resemble Type III cells in form, they display strikingly different physiological properties from these neurons. First, in response to the injection of a sustained depolarizing current, SCN-projecting cells fired in a transient fashion, in contrast to most RGCs which fired robust trains of action potentials. Second, in response to light, SCN-projecting RGCs exhibited an intensity-dependent transient depolarization in the absence of rod and cone input. This depolarization reached a peak within 5 s and generated increased spiking activity before decaying to a plateau. Voltage-clamp recordings were used to characterize the light-activated conductance which generated this depolarization. In response to varying light intensities, SCN-projecting RGCs exhibited a graded transient inward current which peaked within 5 s and decayed to a plateau. The voltage dependence of the light-activated current was obtained by subtracting currents elicited by a voltage ramp before and during illumination. The light-activated current displayed both inward and outward rectification and was largely unaffected by substitution of extracellular Na+ with choline. In both respects, the intrinsic light-activated current observed in SCN-projecting RGCs resembles currents carried by ion channels of the transient receptor potential (trp) family, which are known to mediate the light response of invertebrate photoreceptors.