Melatonin: From Pharmacokinetics to Clinical Use in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Int J Mol Sci. 2021 Feb 2;22(3):1490. doi: 10.3390/ijms22031490.


The role of melatonin has been extensively investigated in pathophysiological conditions, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Reduced melatonin secretion has been reported in ASD and led to many clinical trials using immediate-release and prolonged-release oral formulations of melatonin. However, melatonin's effects in ASD and the choice of formulation type require further study. Therapeutic benefits of melatonin on sleep disorders in ASD were observed, notably on sleep latency and sleep quality. Importantly, melatonin may also have a role in improving autistic behavioral impairments. The objective of this article is to review factors influencing treatment response and possible side effects following melatonin administration. It appears that the effects of exposure to exogenous melatonin are dependent on age, sex, route and time of administration, formulation type, dose, and association with several substances (such as tobacco or contraceptive pills). In addition, no major melatonin-related adverse effect was described in typical development and ASD. In conclusion, melatonin represents currently a well-validated and tolerated treatment for sleep disorders in children and adolescents with ASD. A more thorough consideration of factors influencing melatonin pharmacokinetics could illuminate the best use of melatonin in this population. Future studies are required in ASD to explore further dose-effect relationships of melatonin on sleep problems and autistic behavioral impairments.

Keywords: analytical variability; autism; autism spectrum disorder (ASD); autistic behavioral impairments; circadian rhythm; concentration-effect relationship; dose-response effect; melatonin; pharmacokinetics; tolerability.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Oral
  • Adult
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / complications*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / metabolism
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / psychology
  • Biological Availability
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Delayed-Action Preparations
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Injections, Intravenous
  • Male
  • Melatonin / administration & dosage
  • Melatonin / analogs & derivatives
  • Melatonin / pharmacokinetics*
  • Melatonin / physiology
  • Melatonin / therapeutic use
  • Melatonin / urine
  • Receptors, Melatonin / physiology
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Seasons
  • Serotonin / metabolism
  • Sleep Disorders, Intrinsic / drug therapy*
  • Sleep Disorders, Intrinsic / etiology
  • Sleep Disorders, Intrinsic / physiopathology
  • Sleep Latency / drug effects
  • Social Behavior Disorders / drug therapy
  • Social Behavior Disorders / etiology
  • Tryptophan / metabolism


  • Delayed-Action Preparations
  • Receptors, Melatonin
  • 6-sulfatoxymelatonin
  • Serotonin
  • Tryptophan
  • Melatonin