Interactions between the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system and melatonin secretion have been demonstrated, but only the effects of melatonin on the activity of the HPA system have been studied in man. Alterations of melatonin secretion described as low-melatonin syndrome have been demonstrated in patients suffering from a major depressive episode, and an inhibitory factor on melatonin secretion has been postulated. We investigated whether corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which is thought to be involved in HPA abnormalities in depressed patients, can also suppress melatonin secretion in healthy volunteers. Ten healthy male human volunteers in a double-blind study design received randomized hourly intravenous injections from 08.00 to 18.00 h that contained 10 µg human CRH, 1 µg adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), or placebo to simulate pulsatile hormone secretion. Plasma melatonin and cortisol responses during the treatment and nocturnal sleep electroencephalograms after the treatment were recorded. Administration of CRH reduced melatonin secretion significantly below values obtained after administration of placebo and ACTH. Cortisol secretion was significantly enhanced by ACTH in comparison to both placebo and CRH. Electroencephalographic sleep parameters revealed no treatment effects. Our findings suggest that CRH has an inhibitory effect on the pineal secretion of melatonin in normal man. A mechanism via a release of cortisol was not supported by our results. Secondary hormonal effects from changes in nocturnal sleep architecture were excluded. Further investigation of the action of CRH on melatonin secretion as well as the mutual feedback between the HPA system and the pineal gland may extend our knowledge of neuroendocrine alterations mediating the adaptive response to stress and the eventual involvement in the pathogenesis of depression.

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