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Seasonal Changes in Circadian Peripheral Plasma Concentrations of Melatonin, Serotonin, Dopamine and Cortisol in Aged Horses with Cushing’s Disease under Natural Photoperiod


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D. J. Tortonese, Department of Anatomy, University of Bristol, Southwell Street, Bristol BS2 8EJ, UK (e-mail: d.tortonese@bris.ac.uk).


Equine pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) is a common and serious condition that gives rise to Cushing’s disease. In the older horse, it results in hyperadrenocorticism and disrupted energy metabolism, the severity of which varies with the time of year. To gain insight into the mechanism of its pathogenesis, 24-h profiles for peripheral plasma melatonin, serotonin, dopamine and cortisol concentrations were determined at the winter and summer solstices, and the autumn and spring equinoxes in six horses diagnosed with Cushing’s disease and six matched controls. The nocturnal rises in plasma melatonin concentrations, although different across seasons, were broadly of the same duration and similar amplitude in both groups of animals (P > 0.05). The plasma concentrations of cortisol did not show seasonal variation and were different in diseased horses only in the summer when they were higher across the entire 24-h period (P < 0.05). Serotonin concentrations were not significantly affected by time of year but tended to be lower in Cushingoid horses (P = 0.07). By contrast, dopamine output showed seasonal variation and was significantly lower in the Cushing’s group in the summer and autumn (P < 0.05). The finding that the profiles of circulating melatonin are similar in Cushingoid and control horses reveals that the inability to read time of year by animals suffering from Cushing’s syndrome is an unlikely reason for the disease. In addition, the results provide evidence that alterations in the dopaminergic and serotoninergic systems may participate in the pathogenesis of PPID.