An in vitro glucose utilization method, based upon 14C-2-deoxyglucose kinetics in brain slices, has been used to study circadian rhythms in hypothalamic slices containing the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Spontaneous SCN metabolic activity in vitro is similar to that observed in vivo with higher metabolic rates in subjective daytime and lower rates during subjective night. However, in vitro SCN metabolic activity during late subjective day is above that seen when glucose utilization is measured in vivo, suggesting that an inhibitory influence normally active in vivo is lost during slice isolation. Incubation of slices containing SCN in the presence of TTX exposes a TTX-insensitive component of metabolic activity in early subjective day, supporting prior suggestions that glucose utilization by the circadian oscillator continues in the absence of Na(+)-dependent action potentials. Studies with high Mg2+ concentrations are consistent with the hypothesis that most metabolic activity above the basal level observed with the glucose utilization method is related to synaptic activity. Pharmacological studies of the SCN brain slice model with radiotracers offer potential for analysis of both circadian rhythmicity and neural regulation.