The nightly production and secretion of melatonin by the pineal gland, an endocrine organ near the anatomical center of the brain, provides important time-of-day and time-of-year information to the remainder of the body. In mammals, the circadian rhythm of melatonin (low levels during the day and high levels at night) is synchronized by the prevailing light:dark environment with the retinas of the eyes doing the photoreception required for the induction of this rhythm. The advent of artificial light sources has allowed animals or humans to be exposed to light at unusual times, i.e., during the night. Light falling on the retinas at night leads to a rapid depression in the production and secretion of melatonin by the pineal gland. The magnitude of the drop in circulating melatonin due to light exposure at night is related to the brightness (intensity) as well as the wavelength (color) of light to which humans are exposed. The lowered melatonin values following unusual light exposure at night provide erroneous information to a number of organs that respond to the melatonin message since the signal implies it is day when, in fact, it is still night. Besides visible light, certain ultraviolet wavelengths as well as extremely low frequency electric and magnetic fields may also disturb the melatonin rhythm. These nonvisible wavelengths may influence the circadian melatonin rhythm by mechanisms similar to those by which light causes disturbances of melatonin production and release.
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