Hypothalamic gene expression in reproductively photoresponsive and photorefractory Siberian hamsters
An interval timing mechanism in the brain governs reproduction in seasonally breeding mammals by triggering refractoriness to inhibitory short photoperiods during midwinter. The neural mechanisms responsible for the timing and induction of photorefractoriness by this seasonal clock are unknown. Using cDNA microarrays and RT-PCR, we identified a class of genes encoding thyroxine (T4)-binding proteins (transthyretin, T4-binding globulin, albumin) whose expression is associated with reproductive refractoriness to short day lengths. Down-regulation of these genes was associated with reduced hypothalamic T4 uptake, which was reversed by long-day photoperiod treatments that restored responsiveness to short days. Circulating T4 concentrations did not vary with states of photoresponsiveness in euthyroid hamsters, but blockade of thyroid function accelerated the onset of photorefractoriness to short days. These data link changes in gene expression in the hypothalamus to the functional output of a seasonal clock. Reproductive inhibition in short days depends on T4 only late in the nonbreeding season. Down-regulation of genes encoding T4-binding proteins in the hypothalamus during this interval may restrict access of a static T4 signal to hypothalamic target tissues that regulate reproduction, thereby timing annual transitions in reproductive function. Hypothalamic autoregulation of T4 influx may constitute a critical cellular process involved in the generation and expression of seasonal reproductive rhythms and suggests a previously undescribed mechanism by which neural targets gain access to peripheral hormones.