The retinoids are a family of compounds that in nature are derived from vitamin A or pro-vitamin A carotenoids. An essential part of the diet for mammals, vitamin A has long been known to be essential for many organ systems in the adult. More recently, however, they have been shown to be necessary for function of the brain and new discoveries point to a central role in processes ranging from neuroplasticity to neurogenesis. Acting in several regions of the central nervous system including the eye, hippocampus and hypothalamus, one common factor in its action is control of biological rhythms. This review summarizes the role of vitamin A in the brain; its action through the metabolite retinoic acid via specific nuclear receptors, and the regulation of its concentration through controlled synthesis and catabolism. The action of retinoic acid to regulate several rhythms in the brain and body, from circadian to seasonal, is then discussed to finish with the importance of retinoic acid in the regular pattern of sleep. We review the role of vitamin A and retinoic acid (RA) as mediators of rhythm in the brain. In the suprachiasmatic nucleus and hippocampus they control expression of circadian clock genes while in the cortex retinoic acid is required for delta oscillations of sleep. Retinoic acid is also central to a second rhythm that keeps pace with the seasons, regulating function in the hypothalamus and pineal gland.
Keywords: circadian; neural plasticity; nuclear receptor; photoperiod; retinoic acid; vitamin A.
© 2013 The Authors. Journal of Neurochemistry published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of International Society for Neurochemistry.