Minireview: Cell protective role of melatonin in the brain


  • In memory of Dr. Armando Menéndez-Pélaez, a dear colleague and best friend, whose scientific criticism opened a new perspective in the melatonin mechanism of action.

  • Summary of a lecture given at Curso Internacional entitled “Melatonina: Mecanismos de Action e Implications Therapeutics,” December 1994, Oviedo, España.

Address reprint requests to Darío Acuña-Castroviejo, Institutor de Biotecnologia, Facultad de Medicina, Universidad de Granada, Avda. de Madrid 11, E-18012 Granada, Spain.


Abstract: In recent years an increasing amount of data has been published involving melatonin in the control of brain function. The pineal gland exerts a depressive influence on CNS excitability. This activity is linked to melatonin, since pharmacological doses of the hormone prevent seizures in several animal models. In addition, melatonin also has analgesic properties in these species. However, the sites and mechanism of melatonin action are not known. A role for the pineal gland and its hormone melatonin as a homeostatic system controlling brain excitability has been proposed, and GABA-containing neurons may be involved in some central action of melatonin. There is evidence supporting a role of melatonin in the regulation of the GABA-benzodiazepine receptor complex, and it appears that melatonin potentiates this inhibitory neurotransmitter system in brain. Melatonin does not bind to GABA or benzodiazepine binding sites themselves, because in vitro binding data showed that melatonin is a weak competitor of benzodiazepine binding in brain membranes at concentrations greater than 10−5 M. The effect of melatonin on brain activity also involves the participation of corticotropic and opioid peptides, and the existence of an opioid-antiopioid homeostatic system is proposed, with the GABA-benzodiazepine receptor complex as an effector. Moreover, the interaction of melatonin with corticotropic peptides and mitochondrial benzodiazepine receptors may result in a participation of neurosteroids in the control of GABA activity and function. The most recently available data from biochemical and electrophysiological studies support the possibility that the anticonvulsant and depressive effects of melatonin on neuron activity may depend on its antioxidant and antiexcitotoxic roles, acting as a free radical scavenger and regulating brain glutamate receptors. The full characterization of the nuclear melatonin receptor explains the genomic effects of melatonin, opening a new perspective regarding actions and roles of melatonin as a cellular protector.