Department of Biology, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA. Electronic address:
The mammalian suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) functions as a master circadian pacemaker, integrating environmental input to align physiological and behavioral rhythms to local time cues. Approximately 10% of SCN neurons express vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP); however, it is unknown how firing activity of VIP neurons releases VIP to entrain circadian rhythms. To identify physiologically relevant firing patterns, we optically tagged VIP neurons and characterized spontaneous firing over 3 days. VIP neurons had circadian rhythms in firing rate and exhibited two classes of instantaneous firing activity. We next tested whether physiologically relevant firing affected circadian rhythms through VIP release. We found that VIP neuron stimulation with high, but not low, frequencies shifted gene expression rhythms in vitro through VIP signaling. In vivo, high-frequency VIP neuron activation rapidly entrained circadian locomotor rhythms. Thus, increases in VIP neuronal firing frequency release VIP and entrain molecular and behavioral circadian rhythms. VIDEO ABSTRACT.