Melatonin in relation to cellular antioxidative defense mechanisms

R. J. Reiter, Regina C. Carneiro, C. S. Oh

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

268 Scopus citations


Melatonin's actions in organisms are more widespread than originally envisaged. Over three decades ago, the changing pattern of nocturnal melatonin production was found to be the signal for the annual cycle of reproduction in photoperiodic species. Since then, melatonin's actions also have been linked to circadian rhythms, immune function, sleep, retinal physiology and endocrine functions in general. In recent years, however, the sphere of influence of melatonin was further expanded when the indole was found to be an effective free radical scavenger and antioxidant. Free radicals are toxic molecules, many being derived from oxygen, which are persistently produced and incessantly attack and damage molecules within cells; most frequently this damage is measured as peroxidized lipid products, carbonyl proteins, and DNA breakage or fragmentation. Collectively, the process of free radical damage to molecules is referred to as oxidative stress. Melatonin reduces oxidative stress by several means. Thus, the indole is an effective scavenger of both the highly toxic hydroxyl radical, produced by the 3 electron reduction of oxygen, and the peroxyl radical, which is generated during the oxidation of unsaturated lipids and which is sufficiently toxic to propagate lipid peroxidation. Additionally, melatonin may stimulate some important antioxidative enzymes, i.e., superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase and glutathione reductase. In in vivo tests, melatonin in pharmacological doses has been found effective in reducing macromolecular damage that is a consequence of a variety of toxic agents, xenobiotics and experimental paradigms which induce free radical generation. In these studies, melatonin was found to significantly inhibit oxidative damage that is a consequence of paraquat toxicity, potassium cyanide administration, lipopolysaccharide treatment, kainic acid injection, carcinogen administration, carbon tetrachloride poisoning, etc., as well as reducing the oxidation of macromolecules that occurs during strenuous exercise or ischemia-reperfusion. In experimental models which are used to study neurodegenerative changes associated with Alzheimer's and Parkinson disease, melatonin was found to be effective in reducing neuronal damage. Its lack of toxicity and the ease with which melatonin crosses morphophysiological barriers and enters subcellular compartments are essential features of this antioxidant. Thus far, most frequently pharmacological levels of melatonin have been used to combat oxygen toxicity. The role of physiological levels of melatonin, which are known to decrease with age, is being investigated as to their importance in the total antioxidative defense capacity of the organism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)363-372
Number of pages10
JournalHormone and Metabolic Research
Issue number8
StatePublished - 1997
Externally publishedYes


  • Antioxidative Defense System
  • Free Radicals
  • Hydroxyl Radical
  • Lipid Peroxidation
  • Melatonin
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Peroxyl Radical

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, medical
  • Endocrinology
  • Biochemistry
  • Clinical Biochemistry
  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism


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