pineal gland (pĭnˈeəl) [key], small organ (about the size of a pea) situated in the brain. 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 disorder. In humans the pineal gland begins to produce melatonin at age 3 months; production falls steadily from puberty on.
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