• development;
  • growth;
  • infant;
  • melatonin;
  • premature;
  • therapy


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Functions of melatonin
  4. Fetal and neonatal melatonin secretion
  5. Melatonin as a tissue protector
  6. Postnatal melatonin studies
  7. Should short gestation instants be given melatonin supplementation?
  8. References

Abstract:  Pineal melatonin regulates circadian rhythms and influences sleep. Melatonin also has protective actions against tissue damage from free-radicals and other toxins. Evidence is presented that this indoleamine is involved in pre- and postnatal brain (and ocular) development and intrauterine growth. In the absence of maternal melatonin, short gestation infants have a prolonged period of melatonin deficiency. Melatonin supplementation, which has a benign safety profile, may help reduce complications in the neonatal period that are associated with short gestation. We believe that this treatment might result in a wide range of health benefits, improved quality of life and reduced healthcare costs.

The fetus receives melatonin from the mother, but following premature delivery there may be a period of prolonged melatonin deficiency. The purpose of this presentation is to suggest that this deficiency may be harmful because this neurohormone has important functions in the fetus. It is hoped that this article will promote further discussion and research in this field.

Functions of melatonin

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Functions of melatonin
  4. Fetal and neonatal melatonin secretion
  5. Melatonin as a tissue protector
  6. Postnatal melatonin studies
  7. Should short gestation instants be given melatonin supplementation?
  8. References

Melatonin (N-acetyl-5-methoxytriptamine) is a small lipid and water-soluble indoleamine molecule which can easily cross membrane barriers. The circulating melatonin is mainly produced by the pinealocytes in the pineal gland. Normally, secretion begins in the evening and lasts until the morning. Light causes specialized retinal ganglion cells to send information to the suprachiasmatic nuclei of the hypothalamus and through the sympathetic pathway to the pineal gland. Light exposure inhibits melatonin secretion while darkness promotes it. Besides the retina, the suprachiasmatic nuclei also receive numerous inputs from other brain areas [1].

Blood melatonin exhibits a circadian rhythm and influences the sleep–wake cycle which changes the physiology from day time to night time in a well co-ordinated manner. Due to its antioxidant and free radical scavenging activities, melatonin is a neuro- and somatic tissue protector [2–4]. There is evidence to suggest that melatonin has immunological [5], hematological [6], gastrointestinal [7], renal [8], anticonvulsant [9], cytoskeletal modulator [10] and other functions, some of which are not well defined.

Most organs have their own circadian clocks and they may produce minute amounts of melatonin which act locally [11]. Pineal melatonin also assists in the synchronization of these clocks and the circadian rhythmicity of all tissues pre- and postnatally [12–14]. The autonomic nervous system and the synthesis and release of hormones are also under circadian control [15, 16]. Internal desynchronization leads to desynchronization of cellular oscillators and affects metabolism of all cells [17].

Disturbed circadian rhythms are not only associated with sleep disorders but also with impaired health [18]. Children with multiple developmental, neuropsychiatric and health difficulties often have an associated melatonin deficiency [19]. When the circadian rhythms are restored, their behavior, mood, development, intellectual functioning, health and even seizure control may improve [9, 20].

The most rapid development of the human brain is during the last trimester of pregnancy and in the neonatal period. Fetuses and newborns spend 16–18 hr/day asleep, most of it being in rapid eye movement (REM) state [21]. REM sleep deprivation in developing animals results in diminished brain growth because neuronal activation occurs mainly during this sleep phase [22].

There is also increasing evidence that circadian gene regulation is important for normal embryonic development [23]. In vitro experiments with human tissues showed that cell proliferation was under the control of the daily rise and fall of melatonin levels. This circadian influence was seen in studies with preadipocytes [24], myocytes [25], epithelial cell growth in rectal crypts [26], bone cells [27], and bone marrow and blood cells [28]. The lack of circadian rhythm in animal models suppresses neurogenesis [29, 30].

Fetal and neonatal melatonin secretion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Functions of melatonin
  4. Fetal and neonatal melatonin secretion
  5. Melatonin as a tissue protector
  6. Postnatal melatonin studies
  7. Should short gestation instants be given melatonin supplementation?
  8. References

The fetus receives melatonin from the mother [31]. Through the placenta melatonin readily passes to all fetal tissues [32] and as a result, maternal melatonin drives fetal circadian rhythms [33]. In newborn mice, maternal melatonin concentration is the highest in the brain than in other tissues, and declines during the first postnatal week by over 90% [34]. After birth, the full-term neonate does not produce melatonin for 2–4 months, leading to transient melatonin deficiency [35–40]. Although the suprachiasmatic nuclei and the pineal gland appear to mature in early fetal life [37], the neurological circuitry controlling these structures does not [41, 42]. Therefore, in the absence of maternal melatonin, the emergence of circadian rhythms is dependent on neurodevelopmental maturation rather than on the environment [43].

Prematurity itself does not hasten the maturation of the neurological network controlling melatonin secretion. The onset of pineal melatonin secretion is even more delayed when there is exposure to neurological insults [36, 39]. Therefore, in premature neonates the melatonin deficiency is more prolonged [35, 36, 38, 39]. An infant born 3–4 months prematurely may lack significant melatonin levels for 7–8 months or longer. Melatonin in the nocturnal breast milk does not correct this deficiency [44, 45] and does not affect neonatal morbidity [46–49].

Melatonin as a tissue protector

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Functions of melatonin
  4. Fetal and neonatal melatonin secretion
  5. Melatonin as a tissue protector
  6. Postnatal melatonin studies
  7. Should short gestation instants be given melatonin supplementation?
  8. References

In fetal animals endogenous and exogenous melatonin offers protection against a variety of insults, such as hyperthermia [50], ischemia [51, 52], lipopolysaccharide [53], trauma [54–56], ethanol [57], phenylketonuria [58], umbilical cord occlusion [59] and induced maternal epilepsy [60]. When pregnant animals and their fetuses in these studies were made melatonin deficient by pinealectomy or exposure to constant light, the damage from neurological and somatic insults was always less marked when the deficiency was corrected by pharmacological doses of melatonin [61–65].

Many, but not all, functions of melatonin are expressed through receptor sites. Melatonin receptors are widespread in human [66] and animal tissues [67], more so in pre- and postnatal than in later age groups [11, 68, 69]. They are even detected in neural stem cells [70]. The presence of melatonin receptors in fetal organs from early in gestation suggests that melatonin is involved in prenatal development.

It is increasingly believed that pre- and postnatal daily rise and fall of melatonin levels have an impact on the development of the brain [71]. The offspring of melatonin-deficient animals exhibit reduced cerebellar size [58, 65], decreased hippocampal growth [56, 72], delayed maturation of the reproductive organs [73], impaired health [62], delayed neurodevelopment [64, 74] and have higher incidence of malformations [75]. Melatonin deficiency also appears to be associated with intrauterine growth retardation, while melatonin supplementation may prevent it [53, 73]. In postnatal avian species and mammals melatonin deficiency leads to scoliosis as a result of asymmetric growth [61, 63] and abnormal ocular development [76].

Abnormal brain development and intrauterine growth restriction are frequently demonstrated in very premature human neonates [77–80]. Brain imaging may show decreased cerebellar volume [81–83], small corpus callosum [84, 85], reduced volumes of caudate nuclei, hippocampus, total brain [86] and a smaller brain stem [83]. In a recent study [87], 113 extremely preterm infants had serial brain magnetic resonance imaging soon after premature delivery until term-corrected age. The findings indicated that longer exposure to extrauterine environment was associated with the proportionate reduction of cortical surface area and more severe neurocognitive impairments. This association was thought to be due to reduced connectivity rather than destructive lesions. It was suggested that the coordinated growth of the brain is vulnerable to immunological, nutritional or pharmacological factors associated with premature exposure to the extrautarine environment. Impaired head growth among premature infants has also been shown to parallel both the severity of retinopathy of prematurity and insulin-like growth factor-1 deficit [88]. Insulin-like growth factor-1 is known to be low after premature birth and it is associated with abnormal blood vessel growth in the retina. Melatonin deficiency is associated with reduced insulin-like growth factor-1 in animal studies [89], while in cultured human granulosa cells melatonin stimulates its release [90]. Melatonin may also protect against a variety of pre- and postnatal ocular diseases [91].

Postnatal melatonin studies

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Functions of melatonin
  4. Fetal and neonatal melatonin secretion
  5. Melatonin as a tissue protector
  6. Postnatal melatonin studies
  7. Should short gestation instants be given melatonin supplementation?
  8. References

Short-term melatonin therapy, using pharmacological doses, has been carried out in premature and full-term neonates without side effects. Melatonin therapy appears to benefit respiratory distress syndrome [92], sepsis [93], hypoxic-ischemic insults [94] and oxidative stress following surgery [95].

In animal models melatonin supplementation protected against streptococcal meningitis in vivo and in vitro [96], pyelonephritis [97], and different types of brain injury [55, 98–102]. It reduced edema following middle cerebral artery occlusion [103], inhibited experimental proliferative vitreoretinopathy [104], and protected against ultraviolet-B exposure to the lens [105]. Exogenous melatonin aided the recovery from spinal cord injury [106, 107], sciatic nerve transection [72], alleviated the effects of retrograde optic nerve transection [54] and protected against drug toxicity [108].

Should short gestation instants be given melatonin supplementation?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Functions of melatonin
  4. Fetal and neonatal melatonin secretion
  5. Melatonin as a tissue protector
  6. Postnatal melatonin studies
  7. Should short gestation instants be given melatonin supplementation?
  8. References

From the previous discussion it is evident that the melatonin drives circadian rhythms, aids in the synchronization of circadian rhythmicity in all tissues, and disturbances of melatonin secretion are associated with impaired health. Furthermore, pre- and postnatal somatic and brain tissue growth and gene regulation required for development are also under circadian control. Full-term neonates normally have a transient melatonin deficiency, which is much more prolonged in preterm infants. Abnormal brain and ocular development and intrauterine growth retardation are frequently demonstrated in very premature infants. Studies in animal models suggest that these are related to melatonin deficiency and can be corrected with melatonin supplementation. Melatonin is a tissue protector and this protection increases with higher pharmacological doses. Based on these observations, prolonged melatonin deficiency in very premature infants appears to represent a major health problem which may benefit from melatonin supplementation.

Environmental changes creating ‘day and night cycles’ appear to be ineffective for hastening the onset of melatonin secretion [109] because it is dependent upon the maturation of the premature infant's brain. Therefore, nocturnal melatonin supplementation is the best way to establish a circadian rhythm because it resembles the maternally driven circadian rhythm. Continuous 24-hr supplementation may be disastrous [110].

As sustained-release melatonin products are not available for infants, fast-release (intravenous or liquid formulations) may be used. These products are only effective for 3–4 hr because the half-life of melatonin is <1 hr. Therefore continuous nocturnal administration of 2–4 mg of melatonin through intravenous routes or feeding tubes would be ideal. Alternatively, a larger pharmacological oral dose of 2–3 mg could be given at ‘bed time’ and repeated in the middle of the night. The oral dose must be larger because of poor bioavailability [111]. However, this method of administration would be less desirable because uneven melatonin levels would be created. Our literature review shows that melatonin is not prescribed according to weight. Although premature and full-term infants have been treated with pharmacological doses, without apparent adverse effects, dose studies in neonates have not been carried out. Therefore, further research should establish the ideal therapeutic doses for use in premature infants.

The influence of melatonin supplementation on the onset of pineal melatonin secretion in infants has not been studied, but it is unlikely to impede it, because suppression from exogenous melatonin does not occur in older age groups when they are given supplements of the indoleamine. The establishment of appropriate circadian rhythms in humans, by any method, including melatonin therapy, normalizes endogenous melatonin secretion [112]. Therefore, the therapy could continue until the brain becomes sufficiently mature to drive pineal function. The best clinical evidence for this would be when, following a brief interruption of treatment, the sleep–wake rhythm continues as before, rather than breaking up. Estimation of the major urinary metabolite of melatonin, 6-sulphatoxymelatonin, in 24-hr urine samples would also be a useful measure.

There is general agreement that short-term melatonin therapy has a remarkably benign safety profile, even when neonates are treated with pharmacological doses [92–94]. Significant complications with long-term melatonin therapy in children and adults have not been reported, although these studies are few [113, 114]. None of the animal studies of maternal melatonin treatment and in postnatal life have shown treatment-related side effects [115, 116].

We hope that this presentation will lead to further consideration, scientific debate, and development of prospective research aimed at determining the potential value of melatonin supplementation in this at risk patient population. We believe the evidence reviewed here suggests that melatonin treatment may help reduce complications in the neonatal period that are associated with short gestation. We believe there is a potential for the reduction of mortality and morbidity in this population. There might be a wide range of health benefits, improved quality of life and reduction of healthcare costs.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Functions of melatonin
  4. Fetal and neonatal melatonin secretion
  5. Melatonin as a tissue protector
  6. Postnatal melatonin studies
  7. Should short gestation instants be given melatonin supplementation?
  8. References
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