Melatonin for sleep in children with autism: a controlled trial examining dose, tolerability, and outcomes.
ABSTRACT Supplemental melatonin has shown promise in treating sleep onset insomnia in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Twenty-four children, free of psychotropic medications, completed an open-label dose-escalation study to assess dose-response, tolerability, safety, feasibility of collecting actigraphy data, and ability of outcome measures to detect change during a 14-week intervention. Supplemental melatonin improved sleep latency, as measured by actigraphy, in most children at 1 or 3 mg dosages. It was effective in week 1 of treatment, maintained effects over several months, was well tolerated and safe, and showed improvement in sleep, behavior, and parenting stress. Our findings contribute to the growing literature on supplemental melatonin for insomnia in ASD and inform planning for a large randomized trial in this population.
Chapter: Miscellaneous HormonesSide Effects of Drugs Annual 36, 36 edited by Sidhartha D. Ray, 01/2014: chapter 43: pages 659-673; Elsevier., ISBN: 978-0-444-63407-8
- [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
ABSTRACT: Elevated whole-blood serotonin and decreased plasma melatonin (a circadian synchronizer hormone that derives from serotonin) have been reported independently in patients with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Here, we explored, in parallel, serotonin, melatonin and the intermediate N-acetylserotonin (NAS) in a large cohort of patients with ASD and their relatives. We then investigated the clinical correlates of these biochemical parameters. Whole-blood serotonin, platelet NAS and plasma melatonin were assessed in 278 patients with ASD, their 506 first-degree relatives (129 unaffected siblings, 199 mothers and 178 fathers) and 416 sex-and age-matched controls. We confirmed the previously reported hyperserotonemia in ASD (40% (35–46%) of patients), as well as the deficit in melatonin (51% (45–57%)), taking as a threshold the 95th or 5th percentile of the control group, respectively. In addition, this study reveals an increase of NAS (47% (41–54%) of patients) in platelets, pointing to a disruption of the serotonin-NAS–melatonin pathway in ASD. Biochemical impairments were also observed in the first-degree relatives of patients. A score combining impairments of serotonin, NAS and melatonin distinguished between patients and controls with a sensitivity of 80% and a specificity of 85%. In patients the melatonin deficit was only significantly associated with insomnia. Impairments of melatonin synthesis in ASD may be linked with decreased 14-3-3 proteins. Although ASDs are highly heterogeneous, disruption of the serotonin-NAS–melatonin pathway is a very frequent trait in patients and may represent a useful biomarker for a large subgroup of individuals with ASD. Translational Psychiatry (2014) 4, e●●; doi:10.1038/tp.2014.120; published online xx xxx 2014 INTRODUCTION Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are complex, heterogeneous and multifactorial disorders characterized by impaired social communication and repetitive/stereotyped behaviors. The diag-nosis of ASD currently relies entirely on patient clinical evaluation.Translational psychiatry. 10/2014; 4.
- [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
ABSTRACT: Background: Autism is known to be associated with hyperserotoninemia and, more recently, with decreased blood melatonin level. Melatonin is a neurohormone synthesized from serotonin and involved in circadian rhythms and sleep regulations. Thus, serotonin and melatonin are two ends of a biochemical pathway, and little is known concerning all the steps of this pathway in patients with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Moreover, the clinical relevance of these biochemical endophenotypes remains to be determined. Objectives: Here we explore the serotonin-melatonin pathway in a large cohort of patients with ASD, in order to (i) better characterize the biochemical abnormalities of this pathway in ASD, (ii) determine the clinical correlates of these biochemical abnormalities, and (iii) assess the relevance of these biochemical parameters as biomarkers for ASD diagnosis. Methods: The five parameters related to the serotonin-melatonin pathway, i.e. serotonin, arylalkylamine N-acetyltransferase (AA-NAT) enzyme activity, N-acetylserotonin, acetylserotonin methyltransferase (ASMT) enzyme activity, and melatonin, were measured in the blood of 203 patients with ASD, their unaffected relatives (291 parents and 92 sibs), and age- and sex-matched controls. Biochemical data were correlated with clinical data obtained from ADI-R for 117 patients. Results: Patients with ASD display elevated blood serotonin and N-acetylserotonin levels (p<0,001) compared to controls and unaffected relatives, and decreased ASMT activity and melatonin levels (p<0,001) compared to controls. When confronted to clinical data, melatonin deficiency appears significantly associated with stereotyped behavior (ADI-R axis D, p=0,003). Finally, comparisons between ASD patients, controls and unaffected sibs on the one hand, and between autism and Asperger syndrome on the other hand, reveal that hyperserotoninemia is a relevant biomarker of autism, with good specificity and sensitivity. Conclusions: This study confirms the previously reported major abnormalities of the serotonin-melatonin pathway in ASD. The typical biochemical profile of ASD patients suggests a deficit of the ASMT enzyme, consistent with our previous work. Serotonin and melatonin are both clinically relevant parameters, serotonin as a specific biomarker of autism, and melatonin for behavioral correlates. These results highlight the clinical interest of the serotonin –melatonin pathway in ASD, and its potential role as a susceptibility factor to autism.International Meeting for Autism Research 2010; 05/2010
Melatonin for Sleep in Children with Autism: A Controlled Trial
Examining Dose, Tolerability, and Outcomes
Beth Malow•Karen W. Adkins•Susan G. McGrew•
Lily Wang•Suzanne E. Goldman•Diane Fawkes•
? Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
treating sleep onset insomnia in children with autism
spectrum disorders (ASD). Twenty-four children, free of
psychotropic medications, completed an open-label dose-
escalation study to assess dose–response, tolerability,
safety, feasibility of collecting actigraphy data, and ability
of outcome measures to detect change during a 14-week
intervention. Supplemental melatonin improved sleep
latency, as measured by actigraphy, in most children at 1 or
3 mg dosages. It was effective in week 1 of treatment,
maintained effects over several months, was well tolerated
and safe, and showed improvement in sleep, behavior, and
parenting stress. Our findings contribute to the growing
Supplemental melatonin has shown promise in
literature on supplemental melatonin for insomnia in ASD
and inform planning for a large randomized trial in this
Clinical trial ? Children’s sleep habits questionnaire ?
Child behavior checklist ? Autism diagnostic
Melatonin ? Insomnia ? Actigraphy ?
Sleep difficulties, particularly insomnia, occur in 50–80%
of children with autism spectrum disorders (Couturier et al.
2005; Krakowiak et al. 2008; Souders et al. 2009; Goldman
et al. 2011b) and are often accompanied by child and
family distress (reviewed in Richdale and Schreck 2009;
and Hollway and Aman 2011). Disordered sleep may
exacerbate core and related symptoms of autism including
social interactions, repetitive behaviors, affective prob-
lems, and inattention/hyperactivity (Schreck et al. 2004;
Gabriels et al. 2005; Malow et al. 2006; Goldman et al.
2009, 2011a). Therefore, interventions that target sleep
may not only improve child health and child and family
distress, but may also ameliorate core and related symp-
toms of autism.
Supplemental melatonin has a favorable side-effect
profile and is inexpensive. Along with other complemen-
tary and alternative therapies, it has gained widespread
acceptance by parents of children with ASD as an alter-
native to FDA-approved medications (Harrington et al.
2006). Three recent reviews have been published on the use
of melatonin for insomnia in children with ASD (Doyen
et al. 2011; Rossignol and Frye 2011; Gue ´nole ´ et al. 2011).
These reviews summarized the limitations of the existing
literature, which includes small sample sizes (majority of
studies containing 20 subjects or fewer), a mix of ASD
Dr. Burnette has moved to University of New Mexico subsequent to
the time of study.
B. Malow (&) ? S. E. Goldman ? D. Fawkes
Sleep Disorders Division, Department of Neurology and
Kennedy Center, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine,
1161 21st Avenue South, Room Room A-0116,
Nashville, TN 37232, USA
K. W. Adkins
Sleep Disorders Division, Department of Neurology, Vanderbilt
University School of Medicine, Nashville, TN 37232, USA
S. G. McGrew ? C. Burnette
Department of Pediatrics, Monroe Carell Children’s
Hospital at Vanderbilt, Nashville, TN 37232, USA
Department of Biostatistics, Vanderbilt University School
of Medicine, Nashville, TN 37232, USA
J Autism Dev Disord
with other neurodevelopmental disorders, limited con-
trolled trials, and limited studies using objective outcome
measures or examining dose–response or tolerability in a
systematic fashion. The reviews concluded that while
supplemental melatonin appears safe, well tolerated, and
promising in terms of efficacy, its use in ASD is not yet
To address the limitations of prior trials, we carried out a
pilot open-label study of supplemental melatonin. The
primary objective of the study was to evaluate the possible
therapeutic effectiveness of melatonin. If effective, we
wanted to also (1) Determine which doses were effective,
(2) Assess how quickly effective doses improve sleep, (3)
Collect safety and tolerability data in a systematic fashion,
(4) Define the feasibility of actigraphy data as an outcome
measure, and (5) Assess the ability of questionnaire data to
detect change with a 14-week intervention in this popula-
tion. Our findings presented here will allow for planning of
larger randomized multicenter trials of supplemental mel-
atonin for insomnia in ASD.
This study was approved by our Institutional Review
Board. The principal investigator holds an approved FDA
Investigational New Drug Application (#76105) to use
supplemental melatonin (Natrol?) for insomnia in ASD.
From subspecialty clinics, as well as from the commu-
nity (e.g., local autism society, public schools), using flyers
given to potential participants, accompanied by letters and
emails to referring practitioners, we recruited children ages
3–10 years with a clinical diagnosis of an autism spectrum
disorder (autism, pervasive developmental disorder, not
otherwise specified, or Asperger’s disorder) whose parents
reported sleep onset delay of 30 min of longer on three or
more nights per week. A study coordinator was responsible
for screening all potential participants to ensure that the
above criteria were met, and consulted with the physician
investigators as needed. Parents of these children provided
informed consent and were enrolled in the protocol to
begin study procedures. Children were free of psychotropic
medications; allergy medications and medications for
constipation were allowed. Parents agreed to avoid changes
in current medications or the start of new medications
during the time of study participation. Children with fragile
X syndrome, Down syndrome, neurofibromatosis, or
tuberous sclerosis complex and children who had a non-
febrile unprovoked epileptic seizure within the last 2 years
After enrollment, all children received:
1.Verification of the clinical diagnosis of ASD using a
clinical interview that incorporated DSM–IV-TR cri-
teria (American Psychiatric Association 2000) and the
Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS;
Lord et al. 2000). A clinical psychologist with
expertise in ASD diagnosis and who is research
reliable on the ADOS administered these instruments
to confirm participants’ diagnoses.
the authors, a pediatrician with expertise in ASD.
Because of the effect of puberty on sleep and the
unknown effects of melatonin on puberty, only children
who were prepubertal continued in the study (excluded
Tanner II or higher stage of physical development on
medical examination or those with hormonal values for
ACTH, cortisol, estrogen, testosterone, FSH, LH, and
prolactin that were not consistent with prepubertal
status). Children were also evaluated for comorbidities
that affect sleep, including gastroesophageal reflux
disease and psychiatricdisorders. Ifthese comorbidities
were clinically determined to affect sleep, they were
addressed prior to beginning melatonin. Children were
platelets) and metabolic panel, including liver and renal
function, were outside of the normal range.
A comprehensive sleep history of all children was
performed by the principal investigator. Children
suspected of having sleep apnea were evaluated with
polysomnography prior to enrollment and excluded if
sleep apnea was diagnosed.
As illustrated in Fig. 1, a one-week baseline and two-week
acclimation phase preceded the administration of supple-
mental melatonin. During the one-week baseline phase,
parents received one hour of structured sleep education by
the principal investigator, including establishment of a
regular bedtime and wake time. Parents also received
education in actigraphy procedures (see below). Children
wore actigraphy watches to confirm that sleep latency (time
to fall asleep) was at least 30 min on three or more nights in
the week. During the two-week acclimation phase, parents
gave their children an inert liquid 30 min before bedtime
that was flavored similar to supplemental melatonin
(compounded by Pharmacare, Mt. Juliet, TN?), in order to
acclimate the child to taking a liquid medication before
bedtime. Children were then given liquid supplemental
melatonin (Natrol?, Chatsworth CA) 30 min before bed-
time according to an optional escalating dose protocol
based on three-week periods (Fig. 1). The rationale for this
design was to determine the lowest possible dose that was
J Autism Dev Disord
effective and well tolerated. The child was initially given
1 mg (4 ml) melatonin for 3 weeks. If a satisfactory
response occurred, defined as falling asleep within 30 min
in five or more nights/week (for at least one of the weeks)
as documented by actigraphy, melatonin was continued at
its current dose until the end of the 14 week dosing period.
If a satisfactory response did not occur at the 1 mg dose,
melatonin was increased to 3 mg for 3 weeks. If a satis-
factory response did not occur at the 3 mg dose, melatonin
was increased to 6 mg for 3 weeks. If a satisfactory
response did not occur at the 6 mg dose, melatonin was
increased to 9 mg for 3 weeks. In the last 2 weeks of the
dosing period, the child remained on the dose at which the
satisfactory response occurred.
Monitoring for Adverse Effects
Parents were asked to review the Hague Side Effects Scale
(Carpay et al. 1996) each week throughout the 14-week
dosing period. They were called at the end of each week by
the study coordinator, and during the call, responses on the
scale was reviewed with them.
All children wore the AW-64 Actiwatch?device (Phillips
Respironics, Bend, OR) during the 17-week protocol
(1 week of baseline, 2 weeks of acclimation, and 14 weeks
of melatonin dosing; Fig. 1). Each device contains an
accelerometer, which detects motion and translates it into
an electrical signal, stored in memory within the devices as
actigraphy counts. The devices were configured using a
one-minute epoch with medium threshold and the validated
software (Phillips Respironics 2010) algorithm was used to
estimate sleep parameters, based on thresholds for wake
and sleep, as described in prior work (Kushida et al. 2001;
Lichstein et al. 2006; Mezick et al. 2009).
During the training session, the parent and child were
introduced to the actigraphy device for placement on the
non-dominant wrist. Parents were given a quiz to test their
knowledge of the actigraphy device. The parent completed
a daily sleep diary throughout the 17-week protocol to
assist in interpretation of actigraphy data and was also
asked to use the event marker present on the device to mark
lights out (the time that the child first attempted to fall
asleep). Children who had difficulty tolerating the device
on the wrist were allowed to use an alternate validated
method which consisted of placing the device on a non-
dominant shoulder location (Souders et al. 2009; Adkins
et al. in press).
Parent-Completed Survey Forms
Parents completed a battery of surveys to determine the
ability of questionnaires to detect change with intervention.
The battery was completed at the beginning of the study
and a second time at the conclusion of the study inter-
vention procedures. These survey forms included the
Children’s Sleep Habits Questionnaire (CSHQ), the Child
Behavior Checklist (CBCL), The Repetitive Behavior
Scale-Revised (RBS-R), and the Parenting Stress Index
Short Form (PSI-SF).
The CSHQ (Owens et al. 2000) was included as a par-
ent-reported measure of sleep to complement the objective
measurement obtained by actigraphy. We hypothesized
that the CSHQ insomnia-related domains would be more
likely to improve with melatonin than the non-insomnia
domains (e.g., sleep related breathing, parasomnias). The
CSHQ was initially validated in ages 4–10 years (Owens
et al. 2000) and subsequently validated in younger ages
(Goodlin-Jones et al. 2008). A higher score indicates more
difficulty with sleep.
The CBCL (Achenbach and Rescorla 2001a, b) was
included as a parent-reported measure of daytime behavior.
Because separate CBCL forms spanned the age range of
our participants (one for ages 1?–5 years and one for ages
6–18 years), we included scales common to both forms
which we believed might improve after improvement in
sleep with supplemental melatonin, based on the available
literature (Hollway and Aman 2011). These included the
syndrome scales of anxious/depressed, withdrawn, atten-
tion problems, and aggressive behavior, and the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual (DSM) scales of affective problems,
attention-deficit hyperactivity, and oppositional defiant
disorder. The CBCL contains modules for ages 2–5 years
(Achenbach and Rescorla 2001a) and 6–18 years (Achenbach
and Rescorla 2001b). A higher score indicates more diffi-
culty with behavior.
Fig. 1 Optional escalation study design. After the baseline and
acclimation (inert liquid) phases, supplemental melatonin was
increased if the child did not exhibit a satisfactory response, defined
as a sleep latency of 30 min or less on five or more nights in any given
week within the 3 weeks dosing period. In the last 2 weeks of the
dosing period, the child remained on the dose at which the
satisfactory response occurred
J Autism Dev Disord
The RBS-R (Bodfish et al. 2000) was included as a
parent-reported measure of repetitive behavior and restric-
ted interests that include the following behavioral sub-
scales: stereotyped, self-injurious, compulsive, ritualistic,
sameness, and restricted. The RBS-R has been validated in
children (Lam and Aman 2007; Mirenda et al. 2010). A
higher score indicates more difficulty with behavior.
The PSI-SF (Abidin 1995) was included as a parent-
reported measure of parenting stress that yields a total
stress score from three scales: Parental Distress, Parent–
Child Dysfunctional Interaction, and Difficult Child. It has
been validated in children younger than 12 years. A higher
score indicates higher levels of parent stresss.
Parents were also asked to complete information about
their education and occupation to provide estimates of
socioeconomic status based on the Hollingshead Four
Factor Index of Social Status (Hollingshead 1975).
The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test- III (PPVT-III; Dunn
1997) and The Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test- Second
Edition (K-BIT-2; Kaufman and Kaufman 2004) were used
to characterize the receptive language skills and verbal and
non-verbal cognitive functioning of our sample. Since the
KBIT-2 was designed for children 4 years of age and older,
it was not used for participants below this age group
Data were analyzed using SAS statistical software (version
9.1, SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC) and SPSS statistical
software (version 19, SPSS Inc., Chicago, IL). Given that
this is a pilot study, in Tables 2 and 3, we present means,
standard deviations, and uncorrected p-values for all
parameters analyzed. However, to assist with selecting the
most robust measures for a larger controlled trial, we
interpreted our data conservatively by controlling family
wise error rate for the multiple measures. More specifi-
cally, as suggested in Westfall et al. (1999), we defined a
family of tests to be all the tests that formed a natural and
coherent unit (e.g., all items in a subscale of a question-
naire, or all the sleep parameters), and a more stringent
Table 1 Participant
SES = Socioeconomic status
based on Hollingshead four
factor index of social status,
PPVT = Peabody Picture
KBIT = Kaufman Brief
14 Male17.9 55 11597731
28 Male3450 119 1131243
34 Male19.1 44 8154713
49Male51.6 4282 661173
56 Male 25.2 2795 791093
68 Female 24.554.5 120 1381261
77Male44.9 54 116115851
89Male31.3 6611595 906
99Male50.7 21.5119 90 1016
104 Male19.1 23.589 83 753
119Male23 50139111 1283
124 Male15.544 n/a88 551
154 Male17.5 40n/an/an/a3
J Autism Dev Disord
threshold for p-values (i.e. 0.05/number of tests in the
family) was used to determine statistical significance.
For each participant, average sleep parameters were com-
puted at each phase: baseline, acclimation dosing phase,
satisfactory dosing phase, and end of study dosing phase.
Within group comparison of the sleep parameters at dif-
ferent phases were then analyzed with the Wilcoxon
signed-rank test. This nonparametric test was used because
the outcomes measured do not necessarily follow the nor-
mal distribution. Our major outcome variable was sleep
latency. We also examined, as secondary outcome vari-
ables, total sleep time and sleep efficiency (total sleep time/
time in bed), and wake time after sleep onset. In Table 2,
since there were a total of 8 tests conducted for the set of
sleep parameters, we considered p-values of less than 0.05/
8 (or 0.006) to be significant.
Parent-Completed Survey Forms
For each participant, we compared the pre- and post-
treatment variables for each scale using the Wilcoxon
signed rank test. For the CSHQ (nine comparisons),
p-values of less than 0.0056 were considered significant.
Similarly, for the CBCL (seven comparisons), significance
level was set at 0.0071, for the RBS (six comparisons),
significance level was set at 0.0083, and for the PSI (three
comparisons), significance was set at 0.017.
Forty-six participants were enrolled in the study, and 24
completed all study procedures. Of the 22 children who were
melatonin for the following reasons–Eight children did not
have confirmatory diagnoses of ASD, six parents withdrew
because the protocol was too time-consuming, two were lost
falling asleep within 30 min on most nights (based on actig-
raphy), one child started medications, one child was Tanner
stage 2, and one child had elevated liver enzymes. Two chil-
separate research protocol, an EEG-polysomnogram done
prior to the initiation of melatonin showed evidence for an
epileptic seizure and interictal epileptiform activity. Melato-
nin was discontinued and the child was withdrawn from the
study. Our medical safety monitor and Institutional Review
Board reviewed this adverse event and determined it was not
related to melatonin treatment. A second child, who was
subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was unable to
method was not developed at the time of her testing) and did
study protocol up to 3 mg, and based on parent diary, the
child’s sleep did not improve with melatonin treatment. The
higher melatonin doses were not given based on the child’s
status was reevaluated. She was diagnosed with bipolar dis-
order, begun on respiridone, and both behavioral symptoms
did not complete post-intervention surveys;however,clinical
follow-up at one year indicated maintenance of the improve-
ment in sleep and psychiatric symptoms.
All children who completed the study tolerated actig-
raphy for the entire 17-week monitoring period, with
five requiring an alternative placement. There were no
Table 2 Sleep parameters
Sleep latency (minutes)38.2 42.921.6 22.5
Sleep efficiency (percent)74.6 75.0 76.579.30.026 0.16
Wake time after sleep onset
Total sleep time (minutes)442.7450.1459.0457.30.0110.18
* Comparing satisfactory dosing phase to acclimation dosing. Significance was adjusted for multiple comparisons (0.05/number of comparisons
within a family of tests) with values meeting significance bolded
** Comparing end of study dosing phase to satisfactory dosing phase
J Autism Dev Disord
significant differences in sleep parameters between the
baseline and acclimation phase. Table 2 shows the sleep
parameters by study phase, and Fig. 1 illustrates the change
in sleep latency with melatonin treatment, which decreased
significantly with treatment (p\0.0001). The improve-
ment in sleep latency was maintained until the end of the
study. Analysis of sleep latency within the 1 and 3 mg
dosing periods showed that the satisfactory response was
achieved within the first week of treatment (i.e., the second
and third week sleep parameters were not significantly
different from the first week). Sleep duration, wake time
after sleep onset, and sleep efficiency were not significantly
different with melatonin treatment.
All 24 children who completed study procedures obtained a
satisfactory response (as defined above) to melatonin at
doses between 1 mg and 6 mg. Seven children obtained a
satisfactory response at 1 mg, 14 at 3 mg, and only 3
required 6 mg. The child’s age or weight was not associ-
ated with melatonin dose response. The mean age/weight
(standard deviation) of children responding to 1 mg was
5.9 (1.9) years/26.4 (11.1) kg; and to 3 or 6 mg was 5.9
(2.3) years/25.4 (11.2) kg.
Questionnaires (Table 3)
On the Children’s Sleep Habits Questionnaire (CSHQ), a
parent-based measure of sleep difficulties, the sleep onset
delay, sleep duration, and sleep total subscales improved
significantly after treatment with melatonin. Of note, sev-
eral subscales (e.g., parasomnia, sleep disordered breath-
ing) that would not be expected to improve with melatonin
treatment did not improve, suggesting that parents were not
Table 3 Parental report
On these scales, higher values
indicate more difficulties
* Comparing baseline phase to
end of study phase. Significance
was adjusted for multiple
comparisons (0.05/number of
comparisons within a family of
tests) with values meeting
Study phase, mean (SD)
Baseline End of study
Children’s sleep habits questionnaire
Bedtime resistance 10.7 (4.2)8.3 (2.3)0.008
Sleep onset delay2.6 (0.6)1.3 (0.6)
Sleep duration6.4 (1.8)3.7 (1.3)
Sleep anxiety6.8 (1.9)6.3 (1.7)0.270
Night wakings5.3 (1.9)4.3 (1.4)0.023
Parasomnias9.7 (2.0)9.2 (2.1) 0.780
Sleep disordered breathing3.8 (1.2)3.5 (0.6)0.170
Daytime sleepiness 14.1 (2.4)12.6 (2.7) 0.129
Sleep total 55.2 (6.9)45.1 (4.7)
Child behavior checklist
Anxious/depressed59.1 (9.3)57.6 (7.8)0.129
Withdrawn71.5 (9.3)66.0 (7.8)
Attention problems 65.6 (8.3) 63.0 (9.3)0.069
Aggressive behavior 62.3 (11.5)60.0 (9.4) 0.073
Affective problems 69.2 (7.1)60.8 (6.5)
DSM attention/deficit hyperactivity 63.6 (8.2)60.4 (8.2)
DSM oppositional behavior 62 (9.6) 59 (8.3)0.026
Repetitive behavior scale
Stereotyped 6.6 (3.5)5.2 (3.1)
Self-injurious2.6 (2.9) 2.1 (203) 0.325
Compulsive7.1 (5.2)4.5 (3.7)
Ritualistic 7.5 (4.5)5.5 (3.7) 0.013
Sameness10.0 (6) 7.6 (6.4)0.017
Restricted5.3 (3.4)4 (2.6)0.130
Parenting stress index
Parental distress32.4 (11.1) 30.3 (8.2)0.204
Parent–child dysfunctional interaction29.1 (9.0) 25.9 (8.4)0.098
Difficult child41.3 (7.2)36.1 (7.0)
J Autism Dev Disord
answering indiscriminately that sleep difficulties has
improved (Fig. 2).
On the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), the with-
drawn, affective, and ADHD subscales improved signifi-
cantly after treatment with melatonin.
On the Repetitive Behavior Scale (RBS), the stereotyped
and compulsive subscales improved significantly after
treatment with melatonin.
On the Parenting Stress Index (PSI), the difficult child
subscale improved significantly after treatment with
No alterations in laboratory findings (CBC, metabolic
profile including liver and renal function, ACTH, cortisol,
estrogen, testosterone, FSH, LH, or prolactin) were noted
Adverse Effects and Tolerability
Only one child exhibited possible mild adverse effects
related to the melatonin preparation (loose stools). All
other children tolerated melatonin without difficulty.
In this open-label dose-escalation study of supplemental
melatonin, we found that (1) The majority of children
responded to a 1 or 3 mg dose given 30 min before bedtime
with an improvement in sleep latency; (2) This improve-
ment was seen within the first week of dosing at the
effective dose; (3) The medication was tolerated well with
minimal adverse effects and no changes in laboratory
values; (4) Actigraphy data was collectable over 17 weeks;
and (5) Actigraphy, as well as parent-completed surveys
focusing on sleep and behavior, showed change with the
Our findings are unique in that our study design allowed
us to identify the doses at which children responded to
melatonin (defined as sleep latency of 30 min or less on
five or more nights in the week) and to define the time
course of responsiveness (e.g., how many weeks were
needed to observe a response). These results are not only
helpful in the clinical care of children with ASD but also in
planning for future randomized clinical trials. Safety and
tolerability were also addressed in a comprehensive fash-
ion, with reference to a side effects scale and laboratory
testing. In agreement with a retrospective review of 107
children with ASD (Andersen et al. 2008), side effects
We also documented that actigraphy can be used suc-
cessfully in a 17-week trial in ASD. To our knowledge, no
prior studies of melatonin in ASD have used actigraphy in
a trial lasting several months. Actigraphy provided an
important outcome measure that was objective and com-
plemented that of parent report. Its use of 17 weeks
allowed us to identify a satisfactory dose and document
that effects were maintained over several months. The use
of an alternative placement allowed us to optimize data
collection and include children who did not tolerate stan-
dard wrist actigraphy.
In agreement with prior studies, we documented an
improvement in sleep latency with melatonin treatment.
Because our study criteria were designed to enroll children
with sleep-onset delay, we cannot definitively comment on
the effects of melatonin on sleep duration or night wakings.
A meta-analysis of randomized double-blind placebo-con-
trolled studies in ASD that reported quantitative data (5
studies, 57 participants total), comparing melatonin treat-
ment with baseline (pre-melatonin treatment) and with
placebo, showed improved sleep latency and improved
sleep duration but not night wakings (Rossignol and Frye
2011). Our findings were consistent with prior reports in
that CSHQ sleep duration improved significantly with
melatonin treatment, but night wakings did not. Neither
sleep duration or night wakings, as measured by actigra-
phy, showed significant improvement with melatonin
treatment. Large randomized
objective measures of sleep will be needed to definitely
establish the impact of melatonin on sleep duration and
night wakings. The design of such trials may take several
Fig. 2 Change in sleep latency with melatonin treatment. Median
sleep latency (y-axis) in minutes was measured by actigraphy at four
different time points: a baseline phase; b acclimation phase (weeks
1–2) when child received inert liquid; c stabilizing dose phase, the
first three-week period when child’s sleep latency was less than
30 min for 5 or more nights in at least one of the weeks; and d end of
study dose phase, the last 2 weeks of treatment. The lines in the box
plot correspond to maximum, 3rd quartile (75th percentile), median,
1st quartile (25th percentile) and minimum. The asterisk (*) indicates
that the median sleep latency in the acclimation phase was
significantly different than in the stabilizing dose or end of study
dose phase (p\0.0001)
J Autism Dev Disord
forms, depending on the questions of interest. Given our
findings showing that a satisfactory response in sleep
latency occurred within one week of dosing, a randomized
trial of melatonin (parallel or crossover design) with a
treatment phase as short as one week is reasonable to
document improvements in sleep-onset insomnia. Alter-
natively, if more longer term outcome measures besides
sleep latency were of interest, such as parenting stress, a
longer treatment phase (e.g., one month or longer) may be
The behavioral outcome measures that showed change
with melatonin (e.g., attention-deficit hyperactivity, with-
drawn, affective problems, stereotyped behaviors, com-
pulsive behaviors) resemble that of prior work. The
literature emphasizes that the behavioral construct of
hyperactivity is affected by sleep disturbance—this had
been documented in ASD populations (Goldman et al.
2009; Mayes and Calhoun 2009) as well as typically
developing children treated for obstructive sleep apnea
(Chervin et al. 2006). Other behavioral parameters which
have been associated with poor sleep in children with ASD
include repetitive behavior, including compulsive behav-
ior, and oppositional and aggressive behavior, anxiety,
depression, and mood variability (Malow et al. 2006;
Goldman et al. 2009; Mayes and Calhoun 2009). In an
intervention study of parent education, hyperactivity and
restricted behaviors showed improvements with treatment
(Reed et al. 2009).
Parenting stress, as measured by the Difficult Child
Subscale, improved with treatment. We did not find
improvement in the PSI parent-related domains (Parental
Distress or Parent–Child Dysfunctional Interaction) sug-
gesting that parental stress in autism is multifactorial and
may not be addressed with a single intervention.
Although melatonin is safe and well tolerated, we
believe that it should be administered under the treatment
of a physician. This is because of the importance of
assessing children with ASD and insomnia for medical,
neurological, and psychiatric comorbidities, which may
cause or contribute to insomnia. This point is illustrated by
the one non-responder in our study, a child subsequently
diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Strengths of our design include: (1) Participants limited
to those meeting clinical and research criteria for ASD; (2)
Relatively large sample size compared to prior studies; (3)
Standardized parent sleep education protocol administered
prior to the treatment with melatonin; (4) Use of objective
primary outcome measures (actigraphy); (5) Screening for
medical comorbidities which can contribute to insomnia;
(6) Assessment of effect of improved sleep on behavioral
outcomes (e.g., ameliorating core and associated features
of autism and family functioning); and (7). Of patients
whose cognitive skills were evaluated, all had an IQ of 70
or higher on the verbal or non-verbal scales, or both. Thus,
our population had ASD with normal intelligence, elimi-
nating any concerns about the impact of intellectual dis-
ability. The lack of significant findings on some of the
behavioral subscales may reflect our small sample size.
Another limitation is that we did not include a placebo
group; large randomized multicenter trials will need to
include a placebo group to establish efficacy. While our
children were free of psychotropic medications, which can
be viewed as a relative strength, our results are less gen-
eralizable to the autism population with sleep-onset delay,
in which some children are taking medications (e.g., anti-
depressants and stimulants) which interfere with sleep or
with hepatic enzymes (CYP1A2) that metabolize melato-
nin. Finally, we cannot comment on the dosing, safety, and
tolerability of melatonin in children older than age 10 or
who have entered puberty.
In summary, our findings provide unique information on
dosing, tolerance/safety, and outcome measures for the use
of melatonin in pre-pubertal children with ASD. They add
to the growing literature documenting that melatonin
shows promise for treating sleep-onset insomnia in ASD,
and address key issues needed to design a large controlled
trial of melatonin in this population.
HD59253), Autism Speaks, Vanderbilt General Clinical Research
Center (M01 RR-00095 from the National Center for Research
Resources, National Institutes of Health), and by the Vanderbilt
University Kennedy Center (NICHD HD15052). Natrol?, (Chats-
worth, CA) provided study drug but no other support. Dr. Shlomo
Shinnar provided valuable input into the study design and
Dr. Gregory Barnes served as the medical safety monitor. We
acknowledge Ms. Kyla Surdyka and Ms. Meg Touvelle for their
assistance with data entry, and are appreciative to the families who
participated in this project.
This work was supported by NICHD (RO1
Abidin, R. R. (1995). Parenting stress index (3rd ed.). Odessa, FL:
Psychological Assessment Resources.
Achenbach, T. M., & Rescorla, L. A. (2001a). Manual for the ASEBA
preschool forms and profiles. Burlington, VT: University of
Vermont, Research Center for Children, Youth, and Families.
Achenbach, T. M., & Rescorla, L. A. (2001b). Manual for the ASEBA
school age forms and profiles. Burlington, VT: University of
Vermont, Research Center for Children, Youth, and Families.
Adkins, K. W., Goldman, S.E., Fawkes, D., Surdyka, K., Wang, L., &
Song, Y. et al. (in press). A pilot study of shoulder placement for
actigraphy in children. Behavioral Sleep Medicine.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical
manual of mental disorders, 4th edn, Text Revision. Washington
DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Andersen, I. M., Kaczmarska, J., McGrew, S. G., & Malow, B. A.
(2008). Melatonin for insomnia in children with autism spectrum
disorders. Journal of Child Neurology, 23(5), 482–485.
Bodfish, J. W., Symons, F. J., Parker, D. E., & Lewis, M. H. (2000).
Varieties of repetitive behavior in autism: Comparisons to
J Autism Dev Disord
mental retardation. Journal of Autism and Developmental
Disorders, 30(3), 237–243.
Carpay, J. A., Arts, W. F. M., Vermeulen, J., Stroink, H., Brouwer, O.
F., Peters, A. C. B., et al. (1996). Parent-completed scales for
measuring seizure severity and severity of side-effects on
antiepileptic drugs in childhood epilepsy: Development and
psychometric analysis. Epilepsy Research, 24, 173–181.
Chervin, R. D., Ruzicka, D. L., Giordani, B. J., et al. (2006). Sleep-
disordered breathing, behavior, and cognition in children before
and after adenotonsillectomy. Pediatrics, 117, 769–778.
Couturier, J. L., Speechley, K. N., Steele, M., Norman, R., Stringer,
B., Nicholson, R., et al. (2005). Parental perception of sleep
problems in children of normal intelligence with pervasive
developmental disorders: Prevalence, severity, and pattern.
Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry, 44, 815–822.
Doyen, C., Mighiu, D., Kaye, K., Colineaux, C., Beaumanior, C.,
Mauraeff, Y., et al. (2011). Melatonin in children with autistic
spectrum disorders: Recent and practical data. European Child
and Adolescent Psychiatry, 20, 231–239.
Dunn, L. M. (1997). Peabody picture vocabulary test (3rd ed.).
Minneapolis, MN: American Guidance Service.
Gabriels, R. L., Cuccaro, M. L., Hill, D. E., Ivers, B. J., & Goldson, E.
(2005). Repetitive behaviors in autism: Relationships with
associated clinical features. Research on Developmental Dis-
abilities, 26, 169–181.
Goldman, S. E., Mc Grew, S., Johnson, K. P., Richdale, A. L.,
Clemons, T., & Malow, B. A. (2011a). Sleep is associated with
problem behaviors in children and adolescents with autism
spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5,
Goldman S. E., Richdale A. L., Clemons T., & Malow B. A. (2011b).
Sleep behaviors in autism spectrum disorders—variations in age
from early childhood through adolescence. Journal of Autism
and Developmental Disorders, May 3 (epub ahead of print).
Goldman, S. E., Surdyka, K., Cuevas, R., Adkins, K., Wang, L.,
Malow, B. A., et al. (2009). Defining the sleep phenotype in
children with autism. Developmental Neuropsychology, 34,
Goodlin-Jones, B. L., Sitnick, S. L., & Tang, K. (2008). The
children’s sleep habits questionnaire in toddlers and preschool
children. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics,
Gue ´nole ´, F., Godbout, R., Nicolas, A., Franco, P., Claustrat, B., &
Baleyte, J. M. (2011). Melatonin for disordered sleep in
individuals with autism spectrum disorders: Systematic review
and discussion. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 15(6), 379–387.
Harrington, J. W., Rosen, L., & Garnecho, A. (2006). Parental
perceptions and use of complementary and alternative medicine
practices for children with autism spectrum disorders in private
practice. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics,
27(2 Suppl), S156–S161.
Hollingshead, A. B. (1975). Four factor index of social status. New
Haven, CT: Yale University, Department of Sociology.
Hollway, J. A., & Aman, M. G. (2011). Sleep correlates of pervasive
developmental disorders: A review of the literature. Research in
Developmental Disabilities. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2011.04.001.
Kaufman, A. S., & Kaufman, N. L. (2004). Kaufman brief intelligence
test(2nd ed.). Circle Press,MN: American Guidance Service, Inc.
Krakowiak, P., Goodlin-Jones, B., Hertz-Picciotto, I., Croen, L. A., &
Hansen, R. L. (2008). Sleep problems in children with autism
spectrum disorders, developmental delays, and typical develop-
ment: A population-based study. Journal of Sleep Research, 17,
Kushida, C. A., Chang, A., Gadkary, C., Guilleminault, C., Carrillo,
O., Dement, W. C., et al. (2001). Comparison of actigraphic,
polysomnographic, and subjective assessment of sleep parame-
ters in sleep-disordered patients. Sleep Medicine, 2, 389–396.
Lam, K. S. L., & Aman, M. G. (2007). The repetitive behavior scale-
revised: Independent validation in individuals with autism
spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders,
Lichstein, K. L., Stone, K. C., Donaldson, J., Nau, S. D., Soeffing, J.
P., Murray, D., et al. (2006). Actigraphy validation with
insomnia. Sleep, 29, 232–239.
Lord, C., Risi, S., Lambrecht, L., Cook, E. H., Jr, Leventhal, B. L.,
DiLavore, P. C., et al. (2000). The autism diagnostic observation
schedule-generic: A standard measure of social and communi-
cation deficits associated with the spectrum of autism. Journal of
Autism Developmental Disorders, 30(3), 205–223.
Malow, B. A., Marzec, M. L., McGrew, S. G., Wang, L., & Stone, W.
(2006). Characterizing sleep in children with autism spectrum
disorders: A multidimensional approach. Sleep, 29, 1563–1571.
Mayes, S. D., & Calhoun, S. (2009). Variables related to sleep
problems in children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum
Disorder, 3, 931–941.
Mezick, E. J., Matthews, K. A., Hall, M., Kamarck, T. W., Buysse, D.
J., Owens, J. F., et al. (2009). Intra-individual variability in sleep
duration and fragmentation: Associations with stress. Psycho-
neuroendocrinology, 34, 1346–1354.
Mirenda, R., Smith, I. M., & Vaillancourt, T. (2010). Validating the
repetitive behavior scale-revised in young children with autism
spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders,
Owens, J. A., Spirito, A., & McGuinn, M. (2000). The children’s sleep
instrument for school-aged children. Sleep, 23, 1043–1051.
Phillips Respironics. Actiware/Actiware-ct (2010). Actiwatch com-
munication and sleep analysis software instruction manual.
Software Version 5.9.
Reed, H. E., McGrew, S. G., Artibee, K., Surdyka, K., Goldman, S.
E., & Frank, K. (2009). Parent-based sleep education workshops
in autism. Journal of Child Neurology, 24, 236–245.
Richdale, A. L., & Schreck, K. A. (2009). Sleep problems in autism
spectrum disorders: Prevalence, nature, & possible biopsycho-
social aetiologies. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 13(6), 403–411.
Rossignol, D., & Frye, R. (2011). Melatonin in autism spectrum
disorders: A systemic review and meta-analysis. Developmental
Medicine and Child Neurology, 53(9), 783–792.
Schreck, K. A., Mulick, J. A., & Smith, A. F. (2004). Sleep problems
as possible predictors of intensified symptoms of autism.
Research Developmental Disabilities, 25, 57–66.
Souders, M. C., Mason, T. B., Valladares, O., Bucan, M., Levy, S. A.,
Mandell, D. S., et al. (2009). Sleep behaviors and sleep quality in
children with autism spectrum disorders. Sleep, 32, 1566–1578.
Westfall, P., Tobias, R. D., Ron, D., Wolfinger, R. D., & Hochberg,
Y. (1999). Multiple comparisons and multiple tests using SAS.
Cary, NC: SAS Institute Inc.
J Autism Dev Disord