Background: Many studies in autistic disorder report sleep problems and altered circadian rhythms, suggesting abnormalities in melatonin physiology. Additionally, melatonin, a pineal gland hormone produced from serotonin, is of special interest in autistic disorder given reported alterations in central and peripheral serotonin neurobiology.
Methods: Nocturnal urinary excretion of 6-sulphatoxymelatonin was measured by radioimmunoassay in groups of children and adolescents with autistic disorder (n = 49) and normal control individuals (n = 88) matched on age, sex, and Tanner stage of puberty.
Results: Nocturnal 6-sulphatoxymelatonin excretion rate was significantly and substantially lower in patients with autism than in normal controls (mean +/- SEM, .75 +/- .11 vs. 1.80 +/- .17 microg/hr, p =.0001), and was significantly negatively correlated with severity of autistic impairments in verbal communication and play (p < .05).
Conclusions: These findings indicate clearly that nocturnal production of melatonin is reduced in autism. Further research is warranted in order to understand the mechanisms underlying the lower melatonin production, to assess the impact of altered melatonin on the pathophysiology and behavioral expression of autistic disorder, and to determine the utility of melatonin administration in individuals with autism.