Adaptation of Human Pineal Melatonin Suppression by Recent Photic History

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Abstract

The human circadian pacemaker controls the timing of the release of the pineal hormone melatonin, which promotes sleep, decreases body temperature, and diminishes cognitive performance. Abnormal melatonin secretion has been observed in psychiatric and circadian disorders. Although melatonin secretion is directly suppressed by exposure to light in a nonlinear intensity-dependent fashion, little research has focused on the effect of prior photic history on this response. We examined eight subjects in controlled laboratory conditions using a within-subjects design. Baseline melatonin secretion was monitored under constant routine conditions and compared with two additional constant routines with a fixed light stimulus for 6.5 h of 200 lux (50 μW/cm2) after approximately 3 d of photic exposure during the subjective day of either about 200 lux (50 μW/cm2) or about 0.5 lux (0.15 μW/cm2). We found a significant increase in melatonin suppression during the stimulus after a prior photic history of approximately 0.5 lux compared with approximately 200 lux, revealing that humans exhibit adaptation of circadian photoreception. Such adaptation indicates that translation of a photic stimulus into drive on the human circadian pacemaker involves more complex temporal dynamics than previously recognized. Further elucidation of these properties could prove useful in potentiating light therapies for circadian and affective disorders.

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