Oxidative stress-induced mitochondrial dysfunction has been shown to play a crucial role in the pathogenesis of a wide range of diseases. Protecting mitochondrial function, therefore, is vital for cells to survive during these disease processes. In this study, we demonstrate that melatonin, a chief secretory product of the pineal gland, readily rescued mitochondria from oxidative stress-induced dysfunction and effectively prevented subsequent apoptotic events and death in rat brain astrocytes (RBA-1). The early protection provided by melatonin in mitochondria of intact living cells was investigated by the application of time-lapse conventional, confocal, and multiphoton fluorescent imaging microscopy coupled with noninvasive mitochondria-targeted fluorescent probes. In particular, we observed that melatonin effectively prevented exogenously applied H2O2-induced mitochondrial swelling in rat brain astrocytes at an early time point (within 10 min) and subsequently reduced apoptotic cell death (150 min later). Other early apoptotic events such as plasma membrane exposure of phosphatidylserine and the positive YOPRO-1 staining of the early apoptotic nucleus were also prevented by melatonin. A mechanistic study at the mitochondrial level related to the early protection provided by melatonin revealed that the indole molecule significantly reduced mitochondrial reactive oxygen species (ROS) formation induced by H2O2 stress. Melatonin also prevented mitochondrial ROS generation caused by other organic hydroperoxides including tert-butyl hydroperoxide and cumene hydroperoxide. This antioxidative effect of melatonin is more potent than that of vitamin E. Via its ability to reduce mitochondrial ROS generation, melatonin prevented
H2O2-induced mitochondrial calcium overload, mitochondrial membrane potential depolarization, and the opening of the mitochondrial permeability transition (MPT) pore. As a result, melatonin blocked MPT-dependent cytochrome c release, the downstream activation of caspase 3, the condensation and karyorrhexis of the nucleus and apoptotic fragmentation of nuclear DNA. Thus, the powerful mitochondrial protection provided by melatonin reinforces its therapeutic potential to combat a variety of
oxidative stress-induced mitochondrial dysfunctions as well as mitochondria-mediated apoptosis in various diseases.