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Research continues on the healing power of melatonin (9/4/97)

In 1958, a hormone called melatonin was discovered. Although it has a variety of functions, scientists and the general public have since become interested in whether melatonin delays the appearance of aging or increases our normal life span.

"The older we are, the faster we age," says Russel J. Reiter, PhD, professor of cellular and structural biology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio."We are all running down hill and this happens coincident with loss of melatonin. The question is being asked, 'Is there an association between the loss of melatonin and aging?' Researchers have shown that this natural hormone produced by the brain's pineal gland is a very good antioxidant--helping rid the body of harmful free radicals (molecules that can cause injury to tissue).

"During the past decade free radical biologists have identified diseases that have free radical damage as part of their basis,'' says Dr. Reiter, a world expert on melatonin. "Theoretically, in the future antioxidants could be used to treat many of these diseases, or it could delay or even prevent their onset."

Dr. Reiter has devoted nearly 30 years to researching the pineal gland, which produces most of the body's melatonin. Over the last decade, several researchers discovered that melatonin levels decline as people age, especially after post-reproductive years, stripping us of one of our defenses against disease.

Does this prove melatonin loss is related to aging?

"Not yet," the researcher says, "but there are correlations. For instance, when melatonin is given to animals throughout life, in four out of five reports aging was delayed and animals lived longer.

"Alzheimer's patients have something called beta amyloid in their brain and a certain portion of that molecule generates free radicals, which kill neurons (nerve cells)," Dr. Reiter explains. "The loss of neurons causes memory problems as well as other deficits."

When the research group incubated beta amyloid with neurons, it killed most of the neurons. However, when melatonin was added, more than 90% were still alive after twenty-four hours.

Dr. Reiter explained that there are other antioxidants but none affects the brain as much as melatonin. "Melatonin is so thorough it prevents damage to the cell membrane, to nuclear DNA and to other constituents in the cytosol (the clear, fluid portion) of the cell. In other words, melatonin easily enters the brain and is widely distributed within the cell, so it protects many different molecules."

DNA damage is a prelude to cancer. According to controlled tests done by Dr. Reiter's group, when animals were given a high dose of a carcinogen in the morning, when melatonin levels are low, more DNA damage occurred than when the carcinogen was given at night in conjunction with high melatonin.

"Melatonin shouldn't be looked at as a panacea, however,'' Dr. Reiter cautioned. While it has recently been found that patients with sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease, responded beautifully to melatonin therapy, there is some evidence that melatonin may not help patients who suffer from most autoimmune diseases.

"It stimulates the immune system and that's exactly what we don't want to do in an autoimmune disease," Dr. Reiter said.

Many currently prescribed drugs exhibit some toxicity to the system. "For instance, adriamycin (a broad-spectrum antibiotic), is toxic to the heart," Dr. Reiter said. "It kills healthy cells in addition to diseased ones. This was prevented when melatonin was administered in conjunction with adriamycin. In the future, patients who are prescribed drugs may also take melatonin to prevent toxicity to the system.''

Dr. Reiter thinks the loss of melatonin with age may be consequential in terms of health. "Certainly, evidence points in that direction," he said. "I predict that in a relatively short period of time, within three to five years, we'll have substantial data on the utility of taking melatonin.

"The other nice thing is, there's no acute toxicity," Dr. Reiter stated. "Taking melatonin in large doses can't kill you; its margin of safety has a very wide range."

As in internationally recognized leader in pineal gland research, Dr. Reiter has authored seven scientific books and edited 35 others. If you want to know more about this hormone, Dr. Reiter's most recent book, "*Melatonin: Your Body's Natural Wonder Drug*," is currently available in bookstores.

Contact: Jan Elkins (210) 567-2570