Deciphering the Function of the Blunt Circadian Rhythm of Melatonin in the Newborn Lamb: Impact on Adrenal and Heart

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Neonatal lambs, as with human and other neonates, have low arrhythmic endogenous levels of melatonin for several weeks until they start their own pineal rhythm of melatonin production at approximately 2 weeks of life. During pregnancy, daily rhythmic transfer of maternal melatonin to the fetus has important physiological roles in sheep, nonhuman primates, and rats. This melatonin rhythm provides a circadian signal and also participates in adjusting the physiology of several organs in preparation for extrauterine life. We propose that the ensuing absence of a melatonin rhythm plays a role in neonatal adaptation. To test this hypothesis, we studied the effects of imposing a high-amplitude melatonin rhythm in the newborn lamb on (1) clock time-related changes in cortisol and plasma variables and (2) clock time-related changes of gene expression of clock genes and selected functional genes in the adrenal gland and heart. We treated newborn lambs with a daily oral dose of melatonin (0.25 mg/kg) from birth to 5 days of age, recreating a high-amplitude melatonin rhythm. This treatment suppressed clock time-related changes of plasma adrenocorticotropic hormone, cortisol, clock gene expression, and functional genes in the newborn adrenal gland. In the heart, it decreased heart/body weight ratio, increased expression of Anp and Bnp, and resulted in different heart gene expression from control newborns. The interference of this postnatal melatonin treatment with the normal postnatal pattern of adrenocortical function and heart development support a physiological role for the window of flat postnatal melatonin levels during the neonatal transition.

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