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Keywords:

  • melatonin;
  • pineal gland;
  • suprachiasmatic nucleus

The effects of the application of melatonin in vitro on the electrophysiological activity of suprachiasmatic neurones were characterised using novel measures of coding based on the analysis of interspike intervals. Perfusion of 1 nM melatonin in vitro (n = 53) had no consistent effect on mean spike frequency (Wilcoxon's sign rank, z = −0.01, P = 0.989), but increased the irregularity of firing (Student's paired t-test, t = −3.02, P = 0.004), as measured by the log interval entropy, and spike patterning (z = −3.43, P < 0.001), as measured by the mutual information between adjacent log intervals. Intracellular recordings in vitro in current clamp mode showed that 1 nM melatonin significantly hyperpolarised (n = 11, z = −2.35, P = 0.019) those cells that showed ‘rebound’ spikes upon termination of a hyperpolarising current pulse. Grouping all cells together (n = 27), melatonin application decreased the duration of the afterhyperpolarisation (z = −2.49, P = 0.013) and increased the amplitude of the depolarising afterpotential (z = −2.71, P = 0.007). The effects of melatonin seen in vitro from extracellular recordings on interspike interval coding were consistent with the changes in spike shape seen from intracellular recordings. A melatonin-induced increase in the size of the depolarising afterpotential of suprachiasmatic cells might underlie the increased irregularity of spike firing seen during the subjective night time. The method of analysis demonstrated a difference in spike firing that is not revealed by frequency alone and is consistent with the presence of a melatonin-induced depolarising current.