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The pineal organ, its hormone melatonin, and the photoneuroendocrine system.

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Dr. Senckenbergische Anatomie, Anatomisches Institut II, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universit├Ąt, Frankfurt.


The vertebrate pineal organ rhythmically synthesizes and secretes melatonin during nighttime and forms an essential component of the photoneuroendocrine system which allows humans and animals to measure and keep the time. Regulation of the melatonin biosynthesis depends on signals from photoreceptors perceiving and transmitting environmental light stimuli and endogenous oscillators generating a circadian rhythm which is independent from any environmental time cue (zeitgeber). In nonmammalian species the photoreceptors responsible for regulating melatonin biosynthesis reside within the pineal organ itself. In several nonmammalian species (e.g., lamprey, zebra fish, house sparrow, chicken) the pineal organ is also capable of generating circadian rhythms and thus serves all key functions of the photoneuroendocrine system: photoreception, endogenous rhythm generation, and production of neurohormones. These may even be accomplished by a single "photoneuroendocrine" cell. In mammals the pineal organ has lost both the direct light sensitivity and the capacity of generating circadian rhythms, and melatonin biosynthesis is regulated by retinal photoreceptors and a circadian oscillator located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus. Due to this spatial separation the photoneuroendocrine system of mammals comprises neuronal and neuroendocrine pathways which interconnect its components. The neuronal pathways involve circuits of both the central and the peripheral nervous systems, and as an important final link noradrenergic sympathetic nerve fibers. The suprachiasmatic nucleus appears as a major target of melatonin in mammals. The pineal hormone may thus be involved in a feedback loop of the mammalian photoneuroendocrine system. The present comparative contribution considers, after a short survey of classical findings on the phylogenetic development and the gross anatomy of the pineal complex, cytoevolutionary and cell biological aspects of the various types of pinealocytes as well as the afferent and efferent innervation of the pineal organ (pinealofugal and pinealopetal neuronal pathways). Moreover, emphasis is placed on receptor mechanisms, second messenger systems (Ca2+ and cyclic AMP), transcription factors (e.g, CREB and ICER), and their roles for regulation of melatonin biosynthesis. Finally, the action, targets, and receptors of melatonin are dealt with. The synoptic approach of this contribution, which combines anatomical and ultrastructural findings with cell and molecular biological results, confirms the functional significance of the melatonin-synthesizing pineal organ as an important component of the photoneuroendocrine system and stresses the importance of this organ as a model to study signal transduction mechanisms both in photoreceptors and in neuroendocrine cells.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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