Melatonin, the chief secretory product of the pineal gland, was recently found to be a free radical scavenger and antioxidant. This review briefly summarizes the published reports supporting this conclusion. Melatonin is believed to work via electron donation to directly detoxify free radicals such as the highly toxic hydroxyl radical.
Additionally, in both in vitro and in vivo experiments, melatonin has been found to protect cells, tissues and organs against oxidative damage induced by a variety of free radical generating agents and processes, e.g., the carcinogen safrole, lipopolysaccharide, kainic acid, Fenton reagents, potassium cyanide, L-cysteine, excessive exercise, glutathione depletion, carbon tetrachloride, ischemia-reperfusion, MPTP, amyloid beta (25-35 amino acid residue) protein, and ionizing radiation.
Melatonin as an antioxidant is effective in protecting nuclear DNA, membrane lipids and possibly cytosolic proteins from oxidative damage. Also, melatonin has been reported to alter the activities of enzymes which improve the total antioxidative defense capacity of the organism, i.e., superoxide dimutase, glutathione peroxidase, glutathione reductase, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, and nitric oxide synthase.
Most studies have used pharmacological concentrations or doses of melatonin to protect against free radical damage; in a few studies physiological levels of the indole have been shown to be beneficial against oxidative stress. Melatonin's function as a free radical scavenger and antioxidant is likely assisted by the ease with which it crosses morphophysiological barriers, e.g., the blood-brain barrier, and enters cells and subcellular compartments.
Whether the quantity of melatonin produced in vertebrate species is sufficient to significantly influence the total antioxidative defense capacity of the organism remains unknown, but its pharmacological benefits seem assured considering the low toxicity of the molecule.