The pacemaker of the biological clock, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus, was studied in intact male rats to determine its immunoreactivity to glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), a specific marker of astrocytes. Animals were kept under 12-h light–dark cycles in synchrony with day–night periods. Immunohistochemical reactions were carried out at midday and late at night in both winter (January) and summer (July). In winter, GFAP immunoreactivity was found to be low during the day and high at night. The findings were reversed in summer, when GFAP immunoreactivity was high during the day and low at night. Increased GFAP immunoreactivity appeared in the form of an abundance of thick immunopositive fibres rather than of cell bodies. This was interpreted as a hypertrophy of pre-existing astrocytes due to alternating photic stimulation conveyed by retinofugal fibres to the SCN.
The observed seasonal reversal in the direction of GFAP oscillations raises the possibility that a circannual timer exists outside the SCN.