The role of melatonin in the human fetus (Review)

Louise Thomas, Janice Drew, David Abramovich, Lynda Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


Melatonin, an indole amine, primarily derived from the pineal gland is secreted during the hours of darkness. Melatonin acts as a hormonal transduction of photoperiod influencing the timing of seasonal and daily (circadian) physiological rhythms. Maternal melatonin crosses the placenta and enters the fetal circulation providing photoperiodic information to the fetus influencing the subsequent circadian and seasonal rhythms of the offspring. The function of melatonin in humans is more obscure. However, melatonin has attained prominence as a treatment for disturbed circadian rhythms and sleep patterns which occur as a result of transmeridian travel, shift work or blindness. The biological clock, the hypothalamic suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN), possesses melatonin receptors, in both the adult and fetal human. This concurs with the reported influence of melatonin on human circadian rhythmicity and indicates that this influence may begin in utero. Melatonin receptors are widespread in the human fetus and occur in both central and peripheral tissue from early in fetal development. Thus, the influence of melatonin on the developing human fetus may not be limited to entraining circadian rhythmicity. Considering the transplacental availability of melatonin to the fetus the ingestion of melatonin by pregnant women may be inadvisable.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)539-543
Number of pages5
JournalInternational Journal of Molecular Medicine
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 1998


  • melatonin
  • receptors
  • human fetus
  • circadian rhythms
  • sudden infant death syndrome
  • infant-death-syndrome
  • sleep-wake cycle
  • binding-sites
  • fetal
  • identification
  • localization
  • temperature
  • rhythmicity
  • maturation


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