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Absence of a serum melatonin rhythm under acutely extended darkness in the horse


Abstract Background In contrast to studies showing gradual adaptation of melatonin (MT) rhythms to an advanced photoperiod in humans and rodents, we previously demonstrated that equine MT rhythms complete a 6-h light/dark (LD) phase advance on the first post-shift day. This suggested the possibility that melatonin secretion in the horse may be more strongly light-driven as opposed to endogenously rhythmic and light entrained. The present study investigates whether equine melatonin is endogenously rhythmic in extended darkness (DD). Methods Six healthy, young mares were maintained in a lightproof barn under an LD cycle that mimicked the ambient natural photoperiod outside. Blood samples were collected at 2-h intervals for 48 consecutive h: 24-h in LD, followed by 24-h in extended dark (DD). Serum was harvested and stored at -20°C until melatonin and cortisol were measured by commercial RIA kits. Results Two-way repeated measures ANOVA (n = 6/time point) revealed a significant circadian time (CT) x lighting condition interaction (p < .0001) for melatonin with levels non-rhythmic and consistently high during DD (CT 0-24). In contrast, cortisol displayed significant clock-time variation throughout LD and DD (p = .0009) with no CT x light treatment interaction (p = .4018). Cosinor analysis confirmed a significant 24-h temporal variation for melatonin in LD (p = .0002) that was absent in DD (p = .51), while there was an apparent circadian component in cortisol, which approached significance in LD (p = .076), and was highly significant in DD (p = .0059). Conclusions The present finding of no 24 h oscillation in melatonin in DD is the first evidence indicating that melatonin is not gated by a self-sustained circadian process in the horse. Melatonin is therefore not a suitable marker of circadian phase in this species. In conjunction with recent similar findings in reindeer, it appears that biosynthesis of melatonin in the pineal glands of some ungulates is strongly driven by the environmental light cycle with little input from the circadian oscillator known to reside in the SCN of the mammalian hypothalamus.

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