Most species living in temperate zones adapt their physiology and behavior to seasonal changes in the environment by using the photoperiod as a primary cue. The mechanisms underlying photoperiodic regulation of stress-related functions are not well understood. In this study, we analyzed the effects of photoperiod on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in photoperiod-sensitive Fischer 344 rats. We first examined how photoperiod affects diurnal variations in plasma concentrations of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and corticosterone. ACTH levels did not exhibit diurnal variations under long- and short-day conditions. On the other hand, corticosterone levels exhibited a clear rhythm under short-day condition with a peak during dark phase. This peak was not observed under long-day condition in which a significant rhythm was not detected. To analyze the mechanisms responsible for the photoperiodic regulation of corticosterone rhythms, ACTH was intraperitoneally injected at the onset of the light or dark phase in dexamethasone-treated rats maintained under long- and short-day conditions. ACTH induced higher corticosterone levels in rats examined at dark onset under short-day condition than those maintained under long-day condition. Next, we asked whether melatonin signals are involved in photoperiodic regulation of corticosterone rhythms, and rats were intraperitoneally injected with melatonin at late afternoon under long-day condition for 3 weeks. However, melatonin injections did not affect the corticosterone rhythms. In addition, photoperiodic changes in the amplitude of corticosterone rhythms were also observed in melatonin-deficient C57BL/6J mice, in which expression profiles of several clock genes and steroidgenesis genes in adrenal gland were modified by the photoperiod. Our data suggest that photoperiod regulates corticosterone rhythms by altered adrenal sensitivity through melatonin-independent mechanisms that may involve the adrenal clock.
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