Despite the fact that melatonin has been released for public use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration and is available over the counter nationwide, there currently is a total lack of information on the toxicology of melatonin. In Europe, melatonin has a completely different status in that it is considered a "neurohormone" and cannot be sold over the counter. Even though administration of melatonin in humans, as well as in animals (even at supraphysiological doses), has not shown evidence of toxicological effects (i.e., no deaths), a drug toxicological file still would need to be prepared and approved by the regulatory authorities. Several features that are specific to this neurohormone need to be taken into consideration. Whatever the species concerned, melatonin is secreted during the night; it is the "hormone of darkness." It presents a circadian rhythm and a circannual rhythm (in photoperiodic species). The duration of these secretions could have an impact on the reproductive system, for example, showing the importance of the pharmacodynamics of melatonin. An inappropriate time schedule of melatonin administration could induce supraphysiological concentrations of the neurohormone and a desensitization of melatonin receptors. A long duration of exposure to melatonin also could mimic an "artificial darkness" condition when a circadian rhythm with a basal zero level during the day needs to be conserved for a physiological function. Furthermore, administration of large doses of melatonin could induce high concentrations of melatonin and of different metabolites that could have deleterious effects per se. Numerous books, magazines, and articles have praised melatonin as a "miraculous cure-all" for ailments ranging from sleeplessness, to aging, without any clinical evidence of efficacy (with the exception of its chronobiotic and resynchronizing effect). Very little attention has been paid to the possible side effects of melatonin. Nightmares, hypotension, sleep disorders, abdominal pain, etcetera, have been reported. In fact, analysis of the known pharmacological profile of melatonin and/or of its metabolites, based on scientific preclinical studies, constitutes a basis for prediction of adverse drug reactions or side effects. These include (1) the central nervous system, (2) the cardiovascular system and platelet aggregation, (3) glucose metabolism, (4) immunology, and (5) cancer. The knowledge of the fundamental mechanism of action of melatonin, including molecular biology, also needs to be taken into account for evaluation of possible side effects. Two types of melatonin receptors have been cloned (related to cyclic AMP), and the possibility of intracellular action of melatonin cannot be excluded. Melatonin receptors are present in the periphery and also at the level of the central nervous system, particularly on the suprachiasmatic nucleus that "drives" a circadian rhythm to many other areas on which it projects. Among those, the hypothalamus (which has melatonin receptors) plays a fundamental role in the hormonal homeostasis and modulation control of the organism. Special preclinical and pharmacological studies that take into account all these parameters need to be designed for safety evaluation and risk assessment of this specific neurohormone.
However, recent meta-analyses revealed that melatonin is not sufficiently effective in treating most primary sleep disorders. Some of the reasons for a limited efficacy of this natural hormone are related to its extremely short half-life in the circulation, and to the fact that sleep maintenance is also regulated by mechanisms downstream of primary melatonergic actions. Hence, there is an urgent need for the development of melatonin receptor agonists with a longer half-life, which could be suitable for a successful treatment of insomnia. Such requirements are fulfilled by ramelteon, which possesses a high affinity for the melatonin receptors MT1 and MT2 present in the circadian pacemaker, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Ramelteon also has a substantially longer half-life than melatonin. This new drug has been successfully used in treating elderly insomniacs without any adverse effects reported, and is promising for treating patients with primary insomnia and also those suffering from CRSD. Since sleep disturbances constitute the most prevalent symptoms of various forms of depression, the need for the development of an ideal antidepressant was felt, which would both improve sleep and mitigate depressive symptoms. Since most of the currently used antidepressants, including the selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors worsen the sleep disturbances of depressive patients, another novel melatonergic drug, agomelatine , holds some promise because of its particular combination of actions: it has a high affinity for MT1 and MT2 receptors in the SCN, but it acts additionally as a 5-HT antagonist [5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin) receptor 2C antagonist]. The latter property, which is decisive for the antidepressive action, would not favor but potentially antagonize sleep, but this is overcome during night by the melatonergic, sleep-promoting effect. This drug has been found beneficial in treating patients with major depressive and seasonal affective disorders. Unlike the other antidepressants, agomelatine improves both sleep and clinical symptoms of depressive illness and does not have any of the side effects on sleep seen with other compounds in use. This property seems to be of particular value because of the aggravating effects of disturbed sleep in the development of depressive symptoms. Based on these facts, agomelatine seems to be a drug of superior efficacy with a promising future in the treatment of depressive disorders. However, long-term safety studies are required for both ramelteon and agomelatine, with a consideration of the pharmacology of their metabolites, their effects on redox metabolism, and of eventual undesired melatonergic effects, e. g., on reproductive functions. According to current data, both compounds seem to be safe during short-term treatment.
Absorption, Distribution & Excretion
Potential pharmacological applications
Melatonergic drugs in clinical practice
Jet lag: therapeutic use of melatonin and possible application of melatonin analogs
Circadian rhythm sleep disorders: pathophysiology and potential approaches to management