Circuit projection from suprachiasmatic nucleus to ventral tegmental area: a novel circadian output pathway

Authors

  • Alice H. Luo,

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    • *

      Present address: Behavioral Neuroscience Research Branch, Intramural Research Program, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, Baltimore, MD 21224, USA

  • Gary Aston-Jones

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    • Present address: Department Neurosciences, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425, USA


Dr G. Aston-Jones, present address below.
E-mail: astong@musc.edu

Abstract

The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is a circadian pacemaker that synchronizes a number of vital processes. Although a great deal of research has focused on input pathways to SCN and on the central clock itself, relatively little is known about SCN output signaling pathways. The ventral tegmental area (VTA) has been extensively studied for its influence in motivated learning and, recently, for a potential role in arousal and sleep–wake regulation. Here we present data that SCN indirectly projects to VTA via the medial preoptic nucleus (MPON). Microinjection of the retrograde, transynaptic tracer pseudorabies virus (PRV) in rat VTA consistently labeled SCN neurons at time points indicative of an indirect circuit projection. To specify intermediate relay nuclei between SCN and VTA, putative relays were lesioned 1 week prior to PRV injections in VTA. Unilateral lesions of MPON reduced PRV labeling in SCN by 81.6% in the ipsilateral hemisphere and 75.8% in the contralateral hemisphere. Bilateral lesions of the caudal–dorsal lateral septum, another putative relay nucleus and dorsal injection control, did not significantly reduce PRV labeling in the SCN. Single-unit extracellular recordings under halothane anesthesia revealed a novel population of VTA neurons that selectively fired during the active circadian phase. These results show that SCN provides an indirect circuit pathway to VTA via MPON, and that VTA neurons exhibit a circadian rhythm in their impulse activity. This pathway may function in the circadian regulation of numerous behavioral processes including arousal and motivation.

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