The reproductive effects of placing micro-implants of melatonin in the mediobasal hypothalamus (MBH) and preoptic area (POA) were monitored in Soay rams. Groups of animals were initially conditioned to alternating 16 weekly periods of long days (16 h light:8 h darkness; 16L:8D) and short days (8L:16D) for at least 9 months to entrain the seasonal reproductive cycle. All experiments were then initiated at 10 weeks under long days when the animals were sexually inactive. In experiment 1, rams were exposed to short days for 14 weeks or maintained on long days to illustrate the photoperiodically induced re-activation and regression of the reproductive axis. In experiments 2–4, rams received micro-implants of melatonin in the MBH or POA, or received control treatments (sham-operated or no surgery) for 12–14 weeks while maintained on long days (total of 12 animals/treatment). The melatonin implants consisted of 22-gauge stainless-steel cannulae with melatonin fused inside the tip and were placed bilaterally in the brain. Incubation of the implants in Tricine-buffered saline (pH 8·0) at 37 °C showed that the release rate of melatonin was relatively constant after an initial peak in week 1 (means ± s.e.m.: 3·42 ± 0·43 μg/24 h).
Rams with melatonin implants placed in the MBH, but not in the POA, showed a consistently earlier re-activation of the reproductive axis compared with the control animals in all three experiments (12/12 for MBH vs 2/12 for POA). The mean time to maximum testicular diameter was 12·2 ± 0·9, 21·6 ± 1·8 and 22·3 ± 1·2 weeks for the MBH, POA and combined control groups respectively (MBH vs control, P < 0·01; analysis of variance). The premature growth of the testes in the MBH group was associated with an earlier increase in the blood plasma concentrations of FSH and testosterone, and the appearance of the sexual skin coloration. Removal of the implants resulted in a decline in all reproductive parameters. The melatonin treatments did not cause a detectable increase in the peripheral concentrations of melatonin, or affect the diurnal rhythm in melatonin which reflected the long-day photoperiod. When implants containing 125I-labelled melatonin were introduced into the brain the associated radioactivity was localized to within 1 mm of the implants.
The overall results demonstrate that the constant administration of melatonin into the MBH blocks the effect of the endogenous long-day melatonin signal and induces gonadal redevelopment. This provides the first evidence that melatonin acts within or close to the MBH to relay effects of photoperiod and influence the timing of the reproductive cycle in the ram.