Melatonin binds and activates G protein-coupled melatonin receptors. The density and affinity of the endogenous melatonin receptors change throughout the 24-hr day, and the exposure of recombinant melatonin receptors to melatonin often results in desensitization of the receptors. Receptor density, G protein activation and expression level were analyzed in CHO cell lines stably expressing the human MT1 receptors after 1 or 72 hr of exposure to melatonin (agonist, 10 nm) and luzindole (antagonist/inverse agonist, 10 microm). The 72-hr exposure to luzindole significantly increased the apparent receptor density in cell lines with both high and low MT1 receptor expression levels (MT1(high) and MT1(low) cells, respectively). In the constitutively active MT1(high) cells, luzindole pretreatment also stimulated the functional response to melatonin in [(35)S]GTPgammaS binding assays, whereas melatonin pretreatment attenuated the functional response at both time points. Receptor ELISA was used to analyze the cell membrane and total expression level of the MT1 receptor in intact and permeabilized cells, respectively. Luzindole pretreatment decreased the total cellular level of MT1 receptor in the MT1(high) cells at both time points but increased the cell surface expression of MT1 receptor at 72 hr. Melatonin significantly decreased MT1 receptor cell surface expression only in MT1(high) cells after a 1-hr treatment. These results indicate that melatonin treatment desensitizes MT1 receptors, whereas luzindole increases ligand binding and G-protein activation. Luzindole also stimulates downregulation of the MT1 receptor protein, interfering with the synthesis and/or degradation of the receptor.