The pineal gland (also called the pineal body, epiphysis cerebri, epiphysis or the "third eye") is a small endocrine gland in the vertebrate brain. It produces the serotonin derivative melatonin, a hormone that affects the modulation of wake/sleep patterns and seasonal functions. Its shape resembles a tiny pine cone (hence its name), and it is located near the center of the brain, between the two hemispheres, tucked in a groove where the two rounded thalamic bodies join.
The pineal gland was originally believed to be a "vestigial remnant" of a larger organ. In 1917 it was known that extract of cow pineals lightened frog skin. Dermatology professor Aaron B. Lerner and colleagues at Yale University, hoping that a substance from the pineal might be useful in treating skin diseases, isolated and named the hormone melatonin in 1958. The substance did not prove to be helpful as intended, but its discovery helped solve several mysteries such as why removing the rat's pineal accelerated ovary growth, why keeping rats in constant light decreased the weight of their pineals, and why pinealectomy and constant light affect ovary growth to an equal extent; this knowledge gave a boost to the then new field of chronobiology.
Melatonin is N-acetyl-5-methoxy-tryptamine, a derivative of the amino acid tryptophan, which also has other functions in the central nervous system. The production of melatonin by the pineal gland is stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light. Photosensitive cells in the retina detect light and directly signal the SCN, entraining its rhythm to the 24-hour cycle in nature. Fibers project from the SCN to the paraventricular nuclei (PVN), which relay the circadian signals to the spinal cord and out via the sympathetic system to superior cervical ganglia (SCG), and from there into the pineal gland. The function(s) of melatonin in humans is not clear; it is commonly prescribed for the treatment of circadian rhythm sleep disorders.
The human pineal gland grows in size until about 1–2 years of age, remaining stable thereafter, although its weight increases gradually from puberty onwards. The abundant melatonin levels in children are believed to inhibit sexual development, and pineal tumors have been linked with precocious puberty. When puberty arrives, melatonin production is reduced. Calcification of the pineal gland is typical in adults.