Melatonin, sleep, and circadian rhythms: rationale for development of specific melatonin agonists

Sleep Med. 2004 Nov;5(6):523-32. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2004.07.009.


Circadian rhythm sleep disorders (CRSDs), whether chronic or transient, affect a broad range of individuals, including many elderly, those with severe visual impairments, shift workers, and jet travelers moving rapidly across many time zones. In addition, various forms of insomnia affect another large sector of the population. A feature common among CRSDs and some forms of insomnia is sensitivity to the hormone melatonin, which is secreted by the pineal gland. Accumulating evidence suggests that melatonin may regulate the circadian clock located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus. Although the light-dark cycle is the primary signal that entrains the circadian clock to environmental cycles, exogenous melatonin has been shown to entrain the clock in individuals with no light perception and free-running circadian rhythms. Furthermore, studies have reported beneficial effects of melatonin for treatment of certain insomnias. Together, these studies suggest that melatonin may be useful for treating some insomnias and CRSDs. In these contexts, use of melatonin as a supplement has been popular in the United States. Unfortunately, the therapeutic potential of melatonin has been difficult to realize in clinical trials, possibly owing to non-specific actions of the agent and its unfavorable pharmacokinetic properties when administered orally. In an attempt to take advantage of the therapeutic opportunities available through the brain's melatonin system, researchers have developed several melatonin agonists with improved properties in comparison to melatonin. Some of these agents are now in clinical trials for treatment of insomnia or CRSDs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetamides / pharmacology
  • Acetamides / therapeutic use
  • Antioxidants* / administration & dosage
  • Antioxidants* / pharmacology
  • Antioxidants* / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamus / drug effects
  • Indenes / pharmacology
  • Indenes / therapeutic use
  • Indoles / pharmacology
  • Indoles / therapeutic use
  • Melatonin* / analogs & derivatives
  • Melatonin* / pharmacology
  • Melatonin* / therapeutic use
  • Receptors, Melatonin / drug effects
  • Sleep Disorders, Circadian Rhythm / drug therapy*


  • Acetamides
  • Antioxidants
  • Indenes
  • Indoles
  • LY 156735
  • Receptors, Melatonin
  • agomelatine
  • ramelteon
  • Melatonin