Melatonin, or N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine, is a compound derived from tryptophan that is found in all organisms from unicells to vertebrates. This indoleamine may act as a protective agent in disease conditions such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, aging, sepsis and other disorders including ischemia/reperfusion. In addition, melatonin has been proposed as a drug for the treatment of cancer.
These disorders have in common a dysfunction of the apoptotic program. Thus, while defects which reduce apoptotic processes can exaggerate cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and ischemic conditions are made worse by enhanced apoptosis. The mechanism by which melatonin controls cell death is not entirely known.
Recently, mitochondria, which are implicated in the intrinsic pathway of apoptosis, have been identified as a target for melatonin actions. It is known that melatonin scavenges oxygen and nitrogen-based reactants generated in mitochondria. This limits the loss of the intramitochondrial glutathione and lowers mitochondrial protein damage, improving electron transport chain (ETC) activity and reducing mtDNA damage.
Melatonin also increases the activity of the complex I and complex IV of the ETC, thereby improving mitochondrial respiration and increasing ATP synthesis under normal and stressful conditions.
These effects reflect the ability of melatonin to reduce the harmful reduction in the mitochondrial membrane potential that may trigger mitochondrial transition pore (MTP) opening and the apoptotic cascade. In addition, a reported direct action of melatonin in the control of currents through the MTP opens a new perspective in the understanding of the regulation of apoptotic cell death by the indoleamine.