Rabbit does nurse their pups once a day with circadian periodicity and pups ingest up to 35% of their body weight in milk in < 5 min. In the doe, there is a massive release of prolactin. We hypothesised that periodic suckling synchronises dopaminergic populations that control prolactin secretion. We explored this by immunohistochemical colocalisation of PER1 protein, the product of the clock gene Per1 on tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) cells in three dopaminergic populations: tuberoinfundibular dopaminergic (TIDA), periventricular hypophyseal dopaminergic (PHDA) and incertohypothalamic dopaminergic (IHDA) cells. PER1/TH colocalisation was explored every 4 h through a complete 24-h cycle at postpartum day 7 in does that nursed their pups either at 10.00 h (ZT03) or at 02.00 h (ZT19; ZT0 = 07.00 h, time of lights on). Nonpregnant, nonlactating females were used as controls. In control females, there was a rhythm of PER1 that peaks at ZT15. By contrast, in nursed does, the PER1 peak shifted in parallel to scheduled nursing in TIDA and PHDA cells but not in IHDA cells, which are not related to the control of prolactin. Next, we determined that the absence of suckling for 48 h significantly decreases the number of PER1/TH colocalised cells in PHDA but not TIDA cells. Locomotor behaviour in control subjects was maximal at around the time of lights on but, in nursed females, shifted at around the time of scheduled nursing. Finally, in the suprachiasmatic nucleus, there is a maximal expression of PER1 at ZT11 in the three groups. However, this maximal expression was significantly lower in the nursed groups in relation to the control group and in the groups deprived of nursing for 48 h. We conclude that suckling synchronises dopaminergic cells related to the control of prolactin and appears to be a nonphotic stimulus for the suprachiasmatic nucleus.
© 2011 The Authors. Journal of Neuroendocrinology © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.