Our objective was to investigate the effects of melatonin on the free radical-induced oxidative damage to mitochondria in fetal rat brain. Female Wistar rats on day 19 of pregnancy were used. Melatonin (10 mg/kg) or vehicle (control) was injected intraperitoneally 60 min prior to laparotomy for removal of the fetuses. The mitochondrial fraction was isolated from the fetal rat brain of each group. Superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione peroxidase (GSH-Px) activities were measured. As indicators of mitochondrial respiratory activity, we determined the respiratory control index (RCI) and the adenosine 5-diphosphate/oxygen (ADP/O) ratio in the presence and absence of 2.5 microM hypoxanthine and 0.02 units/mL xanthine oxidase. Mitochondrial lipid peroxidation was determined by measuring the concentration of thiobarbituric acid reactive substances in fetal brain mitochondria in the presence or absence of 2.5 microM hypoxanthine, 0.02 units/mL xanthine oxidase, and 50 microM FeSO4. The free radical-induced rates of inhibition of mitochondrial RCI and the ADP/O ratio were both significantly lower in the fetal rat brains treated with melatonin compared with those of the controls (RCI, 44.25 +/- 15.02% vs. 25.18 +/- 5.86%, P < 0.01; ADP/O ratio, 50.74 +/- 23.05% vs. 13.90 +/- 7.80%, P < 0.001). The mitochondrial lipid peroxidation induced by free radicals was significantly reduced in the melatonin-treated group compared with the controls (484.2 +/- 147.2%) vs. 337.6 +/- 61.0%, P < 0.01). Pretreatment with melatonin significantly increased the activity of GSH-Px (20.35 +/- 5.27 to 28.93 +/- 11.01 mU/min mg(-1) protein, P < 0.05) in fetal rat brain mitochondria, but the activity of SOD did not change significantly. Results indicate that the administration of melatonin to the pregnant rat may prevent the free radical-induced oxidative mitochondrial damage to fetal rat brain by a direct antioxidant effect and the activation of GSH-Px.