The biological significance of the spontaneous cyclization and redox reactions of ortho-quinone amines is that these appear to be the mechanism of formation of the indolic components of melanin and are also involved in the autoactivation of tyrosinase. We have previously shown that activation of tyrosinase is prevented by the formation of a cyclic betaine from a tertiary amine analogue. Evidence is presented to show that cyclization of ortho-quinones by Michael addition also occurs in the oxidation of secondary catecholamines. Three varieties of cyclic product have been detected and their formation is influenced by the nature of the N-substituent. Five-membered betaine rings form directly and, although six- and seven-membered rings also form, a transient spiro isomer of the ortho-quinone was in some cases detected as an intermediate. The heterocyclic products formed as betaines undergo redox exchange with residual quinone to form the corresponding aminochromes. We have established the kinetic constants of these reactions, either directly by pulse radiolysis measurements or by inference using a computer model of the reaction pathway to fit the observed data. To investigate the potential biological applications of this chemistry the system was also examined by tyrosinase-catalysed oxidation of the catecholamine substrates in which there is re-oxidation of the catechol formed by the redox exchange reaction and enables measurement of oxygen utilization stoichiometry. We show that the redox exchange reaction is unaffected by side-chain modification whereas cyclization is dependent on both electronic and steric factors. In the light of these studies we conclude that the failure of tertiary amine-derived betaines to undergo redox exchange, and thus block in vitro activation of tyrosinase, is due to the absence of a second exchangeable proton.