Although there is substantial evidence that glutamate mimics the effects of light on the mammalian circadian clock in vitro, it has been reported that microinjection of glutamate into the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus (SCN) region in vivo does not result in a pattern of phase shifts that mimic those caused by light pulses. The present study was designed to test the hypothesis that microinjection of NMDA into the SCN would induce light-like phase shifts of the circadian clock through activation of the NMDA receptor. Hamsters housed in constant darkness received microinjections of NMDA through guide cannulas aimed at the SCN region at various times throughout the circadian cycle. Wheel running was monitored as a measure of circadian phase. Microinjection of NMDA resulted in circadian phase shifts, the size and direction of which were dependent on the time of injection. The resulting phase-response curve closely resembled that of light. The circadian response showed a clear dose-dependence at circadian time (CT) 13.5 but not at CT19. Both phase delays and advances induced by NMDA were blocked by coinjection of the NMDA antagonist 2-amino-5-phosphopentanoic acid but were slightly attenuated by the non-NMDA antagonist 6-nitro-7-sulfamoylbenzo[f]quinoxaline-2,3-dione disodium. The ability of NMDA to induce phase shifts was not altered by coinjection with tetrodotoxin. These data are consistent with the hypothesis that activation of NMDA receptors is a critical step in the transmission of photic information to the SCN.