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The influence of season, photoperiod, and pineal melatonin on immune function.

  • Author(s): Nelson, R;
  • Demas, G;
  • Klein, S;
  • Kriegsfeld, Lance
  • et al.

In addition to the well-documented seasonal cycles of mating and birth, there are also significant seasonal cycles of illness and death among many animal populations. Challenging winter conditions (i.e., low ambient temperature and decreased food availability) can directly induce death via hypothermia, starvation, or shock. Coping with these challenges can also indirectly increase morbidity and mortality by increasing glucocorticoid secretion, which can compromise immune function. Many environmental challenges are recurrent and thus predictable; animals could enhance survival, and presumably increase fitness, if they could anticipate immunologically challenging conditions in order to cope with these seasonal threats to health. The annual cycle of changing photoperiod provides an accurate indicator of time of year and thus allows immunological adjustments prior to the deterioration of conditions. Pineal melatonin codes day length information. Short day lengths enhance several aspects of immune function in laboratory studies, and melatonin appears to mediate many of the enhanced immunological effects of photoperiod. Generally, field studies report compromised immune function during the short days of autumn and winter. The conflict between laboratory and field data is addressed with a multifactor approach. The evidence for seasonal fluctuations in lymphatic tissue size and structure, as well as immune function and disease processes, is reviewed. The role of pineal melatonin and the hormones regulated by melatonin is discussed from an evolutionary and adaptive functional perspective. Finally, the clinically significance of seasonal fluctuations in immune function is presented. Taken together, it appears that seasonal fluctuations in immune parameters, mediated by melatonin, could have profound effects on the etiology and progression of diseases in humans and nonhuman animals. An adaptive functional perspective is critical to gain insights into the interaction among melatonin, immune function, and disease processes.

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