The hormone melatonin produced by the pineal gland during the daily dark phase regulates a variety of biological processes in mammals. The aim of this study was to determine the effect of melatonin and its precursor N-acetylserotonin on the microcirculation during acute inflammation. Arteriolar diameter, blood flow rate, leukocyte rolling and adhesion were measured in the rat microcirculation in situ by intravital microscopy. Melatonin alone or together with noradrenaline did not affect the arteriolar diameter or blood flow rate. Melatonin inhibited both leukocyte rolling and leukotriene B(4) induced adhesion while its precursor N-acetylserotonin inhibits only leukocyte adhesion. The rank order of potency of agonists and antagonist receptor selective ligands suggested that the activation of MT(2) and MT(3) melatonin binding sites receptors modulate leukocyte rolling and adhesion, respectively. The effect of melatonin and N-acetylserotonin herein described were observed with concentrations in the range of the nocturnal surge, providing the first evidence for a possible physiological role of these hormones in acute inflammation.