pineal gland

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pineal gland

(pĭn`eəl), small organ (about the size of a pea) situated in the brainbrain,
the supervisory center of the nervous system in all vertebrates. It also serves as the site of emotions, memory, self-awareness, and thought. Anatomy and Function
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. Long considered vestigial in humans, the structure, which is also called the pineal body or the epiphysis, is present in most vertebrates. It is sensitive to different levels of light and is essential to the functioning of an animal's biological clock. In many animals, including humans, the pineal gland synthesizes a hormone called melatonin in periods of darkness. Melatonin synthesis is halted when light hits the retina of the eye, sending impulses to the gland via the optic nerve. Besides influencing daily, or circadian, rhythms such those of as sleep and temperature, the pineal gland and melatonin appear to direct annual rhythms and seasonal changes in animals. The pineal gland and melatonin are now being studied for their roles in sleep, reproduction, aging, and seasonal affective disorderseasonal affective disorder
(SAD), recurrent fall or winter depression characterized by excessive sleeping, social withdrawal, depression, overeating, and pronounced weight gain.
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. In humans the pineal gland begins to produce melatonin at age 3 months; production falls steadily from puberty on.
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Pineal gland

An endocrine gland located in the brain which secretes melatonin, is strongly regulated by light stimuli, and is an important component of the circadian timing system. The pineal gland is virtually ubiquitous throughout the vertebrate animal kingdom. In nonmammalian vertebrates, it functions as a photoreceptive third eye and an endocrine organ. In mammals, it serves as an endocrine organ that is regulated by light entering the body via the eyes. Despite extensive species variation in anatomy and physiology, the pineal gland generally serves as an essential component of the circadian system which allows animals to internally measure time and coordinate physiological time-keeping with the external environment. See Biological clocks, Brain

The pineal gland is an unpaired organ attached by a stalk to the roof of the diencephalon. In frogs and lizards, one component of the pineal complex (the frontal organ or parietal eye) projects upward through the skull to lie under the skin; in all other vertebrates the pineal is located beneath the roof of the skull. Across evolution, cells within the pineal gland have progressed from classic photoreceptor cells in the earliest vertebrates, to rudimentary photoreceptors in birds, to classic endocrine cells in mammals. See Photoreception, Sense organ

In mammals, nerve fibers extend from a variety of sources in the brain to the pineal gland. The best studied of these neural inputs is through the retinohypothalamic tract, which extends from the eyes to the pineal gland in mammals. Originating in the retina, the majority of the retinohypothalamic fibers project to or around the bilateral suprachiasmatic nuclei in the hypothalamus. These nuclei serve as endogenous oscillators with period lengths close to 24 h. Thus, the suprachiasmatic nuclei function as pacemakers for the circadian system, which regulates daily physiological and behavioral rhythms. From the suprachiasmatic nuclei there are short projections to the paired paraventricular hypothalamic nuclei, and then long descending axons project from these nuclei to synapse on preganglionic sympathetic neurons in the upper thoracic spinal cord. These sympathetic neurons then extend out of the central nervous system to the superior cervical ganglia in the neck region. From there, postganglionic sympathetic axons reenter the cranium and ultimately innervate the pineal gland.

In mammals, information about environmental light and darkness is relayed from the eye to entrain circadian neural activity of the suprachiasmatic nuclei. In turn, the suprachiasmatic nuclei synchronize circadian rhythms in the pineal gland through its sympathetic innervation. One of the best-studied rhythms in the pineal gland is the biosynthesis of the hormone melatonin. Pinealocytes also have the necessary enzymes for converting tryptophan into a larger family of indole compounds, and numerous polypeptides have been localized in the pineal gland. The biological functions of these other pineal indole and peptide constituents are currently unknown.

In all vertebrate species studied, high levels of melatonin are produced and secreted during the night, while low levels are released during the day. The melatonin circadian rhythm is produced by the endogenous pacemaking activity of the suprachiasmatic nuclei, while the entrainment of this rhythm is coordinated by signals of light and darkness relayed from the eyes. Day length or photoperiod can influence the duration that melatonin production is elevated during the night. This represents a seasonal effect of light on the pineal gland. Specifically, in the summer when days are longer and nights are shorter, the duration of increased nocturnal melatonin secretion is shorter than during the winter when nights are longer. This effect of photoperiod length influencing the duration of nighttime melatonin rise has been documented in many species, including humans.

There is extensive species diversity in the capacity of melatonin to regulate physiology. Numerous species, ranging from insects to mammals, have yearly cycles of activity, morphology, reproduction, or development which are responsive to seasonal changes in day length (photoperiodism). Among many species that breed seasonally, melatonin has been shown to be a potent regulator of the reproductive axis in both males and females. The effects of melatonin on the regulation of circadian physiology has been elucidated in many vertebrate species, including humans. In addition, melatonin has been studied in different species for its influence on retinal physiology, sleep, body temperature regulation, immune function, and cardiovascular regulation.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Bioscience. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Pineal Gland


or pineal body, an organ in vertebrate animals and man, situated in the brain, between the superior colliculi of the tectal lamina of the mesencephalon, and attached by a stemlike structure to the third ventricle.

The pineal gland evolved from the parietal organ of some of the higher fishes and reptiles. From the standpoint of comparative anatomy, it is regarded as the organ of vision. In cyclo-stomes, the pineal gland has preserved to some extent the structure of the eye, and it is found in reduced form under the skin of the head in tailless amphibians. It has a glandlike structure in mammals, including man. Developing during embryogenesis from a protuberance in the tectum of the diencephalon, the pineal gland consists of numerous glial and epithelial cells, or pinealocytes, which are separated by connective-tissue septa. The human pineal gland weighs between 100 and 200 mg. It is supplied with blood from the carotid arteries and is innervated by sympathetic nerve fibers from the superior cervical ganglia.

The physiology of the pineal gland has been insufficiently studied, mainly because of the gland’s small size, its location, and its numerous functional connections with various organs, such as the diencephalon and the endocrine glands. In cyclostomes the pineal gland is a photoreceptor. The endocrine nature of the gland’s function has not been definitely established. As its activity diminishes with age, the gland turns into a rudimentary organ containing mineral deposits (carbonates, phosphates, calcium, and magnesium)—the “brain sand” that can be seen in roentgenograms.

Removal of the pineal gland results in premature sexual development in chicks and stimulates sexual activity in mammals. Injecting animals with pineal gland extracts causes a reduction in the weight of the gonads, hinders the development of sex characters, and inhibits spermatogenesis. The pineal gland becomes more active in castrated animals, whereas its function is inhibited by the injection of estrogens. The gland contains an anti-gonadotropic substance that inhibits the action of the gonadotropic hormones of the pituitary gland. The most pronounced effect of hypofunction of the pineal gland in man (Pellizzi’s syndrome) is premature development of the sex organs and secondary sex characters, while the gland’s hyperfunction is marked by underdevelopment of the sex glands and secondary sex characters.


Kakhana, M. S. Patofiziologiia endokrinnoi sistemy. Moscow, 1968.
Khelimskii, A. M. Epifiz (shishkovidnaia zheleza). Moscow, 1969.
Chazov, E. I., and V. A. Isachenkov. Epifiz: mesto i rol’ v sisteme neiroendokrinnoi reguliatsii. Moscow, 1974.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

pineal gland

, body
a pea-sized organ in the brain, situated beneath the posterior part of the corpus callosum, that secretes melatonin into the bloodstream
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005