Neuroendocrine effects of light
- Cite this article as:
- Reiter, R.J. Int J Biometeorol (1991) 35: 169. doi:10.1007/BF01049063
The light/dark cycle to which animals, and possibly humans, are exposed has a major impact on their physiology. The mechanisms whereby specific tissues respond to the light/dark cycle involve the pineal hormone melatonin. The pineal gland, an end organ of the visual system in mammals, produces the hormone melatonin only at night, at which time it is released into the blood. The duration of elevated nightly melatonin provides every tissue with information about the time of day and time of year (in animals that are kept under naturally changing photoperiods). Besides its release in a circadian mode, melatonin is also discharged in a pulsatile manner; the physiological significance, if any, of pulsatile melatonin release remains unknown. The exposure of animals including man to light at night rapidly depresses pineal melatonin synthesis and, therefore, blood melatonin levels drop precipitously. The brightness of light at night required to depress melatonin production is highly species specific. In general, the pineal gland of nocturnally active mammals, which possess rod-dominated retinas, is more sensitive to inhibition by light than is the pineal gland of diurnally active animals (with cone-dominated retinas). Because of the ability of the light/dark cycle to determine melatonin production, the photoperiod is capable of influencing the function of a variety of endocrine and non-endocrine organs. Indeed, melatonin is a ubiquitously acting pineal hormone with its effects on the neuroendocrine system having been most thoroughly investigated. Thus, in nonhuman photoperiodic mammals melatonin regulates seasonal reproduction; in humans also, the indole has been implicated in the control of reproductive physiology.