Intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells convey intrinsic, melanopsin-based, photoreceptive signals alongside those produced by rods and cones to the suprachaismatic nucleus (SCN) circadian clock. To date, experimental data suggest that melanopsin plays a more significant role in measuring ambient light intensity than cone photoreception. Such studies have overwhelmingly used diffuse light stimuli, whereas light intensity in the world around us varies across space and time. Here we investigated the extent to which melanopsin or cone signals support circadian irradiance measurements in the presence of naturalistic spatiotemporal variations in light intensity. To address this, we first presented high and low contrast movies to anaesthetised mice whilst recording extracellular electrophysiological activity from the SCN. Using a mouse line with altered cone sensitivity (Opn1mw mice) and multispectral light sources we then selectively varied irradiance of the movies for specific photoreceptor classes. We found that steps in melanopic irradiance largely account for the light induced-changes in SCN activity over a range of starting light intensities and in the presence of spatiotemporal modulation. By contrast, cone-directed changes in irradiance only influenced SCN activity when spatiotemporal contrast was low. Consistent with these findings, under housing conditions where we could independently adjust irradiance for melanopsin vs. cones, the period lengthening effects of constant light on circadian rhythms in behaviour were reliably determined by melanopic irradiance, regardless of irradiance for cones. These data add to the growing evidence that modulating effective irradiance for melanopsin is an effective strategy for controlling the circadian impact of light.
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