Rejuvenation of degenerative thymus by oral melatonin administration and the antagonistic action of melatonin against hydroxyl radical-induced apoptosis of cultured thymocytes in mice


Address reprint requests to Y.-R. Dai, Department of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China.


The effect of melatonin on age-related thymic involution and apoptosis induced by hydroxyl radicals (·OH) in mouse thymocyte cultures was investigated. Exogenous melatonin was administered in the drinking water (15 μg/mL) of 7-month-old male Balb/c mice for 40 consecutive days. Our results show that melatonin distinctly reversed the age-related thymic involution as revealed by the notable increase of cellular density, particularly the number of thymocytes, percentage of thymocytes at G2+S phases and the younger morphological appearance as a whole when compared with control animals. More strikingly, the recovery of these morphometric parameters were maintained for 30 days after the termination of melatonin administration suggesting that the re-established homeostasis by melatonin may last for a longer time. At the same time, when primary culture of thymocytes was preincubated with 200 μM melatonin before their exposure to hydroxyl radicals (·OH) generated by Fe2+-mediated Fenton reaction, apoptotic cell death induced by ·OH was almost completely prevented as determined by both flow cytometric analysis and the TUNEL assay. DNA laddering assay also documented the inhibition of thymocyte apoptosis by melatonin. Furthermore, we found that the ·OH-induced increment of caspase-3 activity in thymocytes was completely abolished by melatonin preincubation. Taken together, our study indicates that in addition to other mechanisms, melatonin may also directly act as an antioxidant via attenuating apoptotic thymocyte death caused by free radicals and stimulates thymocyte proliferation in thymus and thus to rejuvenate the degenerative organ.