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The Mammalian Circadian Clock in the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus Exhibits Rapid Tolerance to Ethanol In Vivo and In Vitro


Reprint requests: Rebecca A. Prosser, Ph.D., Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville TN 37996; Tel.: 865-974-2722; Fax: 865-974-6306; E-mail:



Ethanol (EtOH) triggers cellular adaptations that induce tolerance in many brain areas, including the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), the site of the master circadian clock. EtOH inhibits light-induced phase shifts in the SCN in vivo and glutamate-induced phase shifts in vitro. The in vitro phase shifts develop acute tolerance to EtOH, occurring within minutes of initial exposure, while the in vivo phase shifts exhibit no evidence of chronic tolerance. An intermediate form, rapid tolerance, is not well studied but may predict subsequent chronic tolerance. Here, we investigated rapid tolerance in the SCN clock.


Adult C57BL/6 mice were provided 15% EtOH or water for one 12-hour lights-off period. For in vitro experiments, SCN-containing brain slices were prepared in the morning and treated for 10 minutes with glutamate +/− EtOH the following night. Single-cell neuronal firing rates were recorded extracellularly during the subsequent day to determine SCN clock phase. For in vivo experiments, mice receiving EtOH 24 hours previously were exposed to a 30-minute light pulse immediately preceded by intraperitoneal saline or 2 g/kg EtOH injection. Mice were then placed in constant darkness and their phase-shifting responses measured.


In vitro, the SCN clock from EtOH-exposed mice exhibited rapid tolerance, with a 10-fold increase in EtOH needed to inhibit glutamate-induced phase shifts. Co-application of brain-derived neurotrophic factor prevented EtOH inhibition, consistent with experiments using EtOH-naïve mice. Rapid tolerance lasts 48 to 96 hours, depending on whether assessing in vitro phase advances or phase delays. Similarly, in vivo, prior EtOH consumption prevented EtOH's acute blockade of photic phase delays. Finally, immunoblot experiments showed no changes in SCN glutamate receptor subunit (NR2B) expression or phosphorylation in response to rapid tolerance induction.


The SCN circadian clock develops rapid tolerance to EtOH as assessed both in vivo and in vitro, and the tolerance lasts for several days. These data demonstrate the utility of the circadian system as a model for investigating cellular mechanisms through which EtOH acts in the brain.

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