Neurons knocked for a loop by a burst of VIP are better able to re-synchronize to abrupt shifts in the light-dark cycle like those that make jet lag or shift work so miserable.
According to the scientists, it takes tumbling cells only half as long as undisturbed cells to entrain to the new schedule.
Resynching by jarring is familiar to everyone who has ever whacked a flickering analog TV to get it to synch or hit the ceiling near a fluorescent light in the hope that its ballast starts buzzing.
The scientists at Washington University hope to find a way to coax the brain into releasing its own stores of VIP or to find other ways to deliberately cause tumbling so that the clock will reset to a new time.
Such a treatment might help travellers, shift works and others who overtax the ability of the biological clock to entrain to environmental cues.
The master circadian clock in mammals is a knot of 20,000 nerve cells roughly a quarter the size of a grain of rice called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN).
Each neuron in the SCN keeps time, but because they're different cells, they have slightly different rhythms. Some run a bit fast and others a bit slow.