Pineal gland hormone and idiopathic scoliosis: possible effect of melatonin on sleep-related postural mechanisms

Arch Ital Biol. 2002 Apr;140(2):129-58.


Experimental and clinical evidences indicate that endocrine mechanisms, particularly involving the pineal gland, exert a role in the development of postural deficits leading to the occurrence of idiopatic scoliosis (IS). In particular, experiments performed in bipedal animals have shown that removal of the pineal gland, which secretes melatonin (M), induced a scoliosis, and that in such preparations, administration of this hormone prevented the development of this deformity (cf. 131). It appears also that adolescents with IS showed a reduced level of serum M with respect to age-related control subjects. The possible mechanisms involved in the M regulation of the tonic contraction of the axial musculature have been discussed. It is known that the pineal gland is implicated in the control of circadian rhythms, including the sleep-waking cycle, and that during this cycle there are prominent changes in postural activity, which affect not only the limbs, but also the axial musculature. These changes are characterized by a decrease followed by a suppression of postural activity, which occur particularly during transition from wakefulness to synchronized sleep and, more prominently, to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Episodes of postural atonia may also occur during the cataplectic episodes, which are typical of narcolepsy. Cholinergic and/or cholinoceptive neurons located in the dorsal pontine reticular formation (pRF) and the related medullary inhibitory reticulospinal (RS) system, intervene in the suppression of posture during REM sleep, as well as during the cataplectic episodes which occur in narcolepsy. These structures are under the modulatory (inhibitory) influence of the dorsomedial and the dorsolateral pontine tegmentum, where serotoninergic raphe nuclei (RN) neurons and noradrenergic locus coeruleus (LC) neurons are located. We postulated that M may act not only on the circadian pacemaker, but also directly on the pontine tegmental structures involved in the regulation of posture during the animal states indicated above. This hypothesis is supported by the facts that: 1) the dorsal pRF may contain specific binding sites for M; 2) this structure is particularly sensitive to M in adolescents, as well as in adult subjects affected by narcoleptic disturbances leading to cataplexy; 3) M increases the release of serotonin (5-HT), a neurotransmitter which enhances the postural tone by acting on the dorsal pRF: on the other hand, deficits in M levels may lower the activity of the serotoninergic raphe system, thus leading to a decrease or suppression of postural activity similar to that occurring either during REM sleep or during the cataplectic episodes typical of narcoleptic patients; 4) IS patients may show episodes of sleep apnea, a phenomenon which has been attibuted to a reduced tonic contraction of primary and accessory respiratory muscles during REM, resulting from a reduced release of 5-HT at dorsal pontine level. It has been postulated that, if the reduced M and 5-HT levels are subliminal to produce a complete suppression of posture under the conditions reported above, the reduced postural tone, which results from this condition may lead to the development of IS, due to hypotonia which affects the axial musculature. M secretion could be regulated not only by the activity of the serotoninergic raphe neurons projecting to the pineal gland, but probably also by the activity of noradrenergic LC neurons. It is likely that the development of IS, which results from a reduced level of M and 5-HT, may occur provided that the noradrenergic LC inhibition of the pontine structures is impaired. Such impairment could depend upon genetic factors, similar to those postulated to play a role in narcolepsy. In conclusion, the possibility exists that an impaired activity of brain monoaminergic systems may lead to disfunction in the production of M, which is apparently an important factor in the etiopathogenesis of IS.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biogenic Monoamines / deficiency
  • Humans
  • Locus Coeruleus / metabolism
  • Locus Coeruleus / physiopathology
  • Melatonin / deficiency*
  • Pineal Gland / metabolism
  • Pineal Gland / physiopathology*
  • Posture / physiology
  • Raphe Nuclei / metabolism
  • Raphe Nuclei / physiopathology
  • Scoliosis / etiology*
  • Scoliosis / metabolism
  • Scoliosis / physiopathology
  • Sleep / physiology*


  • Biogenic Monoamines
  • Melatonin