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Dopamine receptors are a class of G protein-coupled receptors that are prominent in the vertebrate central nervous system (CNS). The neurotransmitter dopamine is the primary endogenous ligand for dopamine receptors.
Dopamine receptors are implicated in many neurological processes, including motivation, pleasure, cognition, memory, learning, and fine motor control, as well as modulation of neuroendocrine signaling. Abnormal dopamine receptor signaling and dopaminergic nerve function is implicated in several neuropsychiatric disorders. Thus, dopamine receptors are common neurologic drug targets; antipsychotics are often dopamine receptor antagonists while psychostimulants are typically indirect agonists of dopamine receptors.
The existence of multiple types of receptors for dopamine was first proposed in 1976. There are at least five subtypes of dopamine receptors, D1, D2, D3, D4, and D5. The D1 and D5 receptors are members of the D1-like family of dopamine receptors, whereas the D2, D3 and D4 receptors are members of the D2-like family. There is also some evidence that suggests the existence of possible D6 and D7 dopamine receptors, but such receptors have not been conclusively identified.
At a global level, D1 receptors have widespread expression throughout the brain. Furthermore, D1-2 receptor subtypes are found at 10-100 times the levels of the D3-5 subtypes.
Dopamine receptor D1 and Dopamine receptor D5 are Gs coupled receptors that stimulate adenylyl cyclase to produce cAMP, increasing intracellular calcium among other cAMP mediated processes. The D2 class of receptors produce the opposite effect, as they are Gαi coupled receptors, and block the activity of adenylyl cyclase. cAMP mediated protein kinase A activity also results in the phosphorylation of DARPP-32, an inhibitor of protein phosphatase 1. Sustained D1 receptor activity is kept in check by Cyclin-dependent kinase 5. Dopamine receptor activation of Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II can be cAMP dependent or independent.
The cAMP mediated pathway results in amplification of PKA phosphorylation activity, which is normally kept in equilibrium by PP1. The DARPP-32 mediated PP1 inhibition amplifies PKA phosphorylation of AMPA, NMDA, and inward rectifying potassium channels, increasing AMPA and NMDA currents while decreasing potassium conductance.
D1 receptor agonism and D2 receptor blockade also increases mRNA translation by phosphorylating ribosomal protein s6, resulting in activation of mTOR. The behavioral implications are unknown. Dopamine receptors may also regulate ion channels and BDNF independent of cAMP, possibly through direct interactions. There is evidence that D1 receptor agonism regulates phospholipase C independent of cAMP, however implications and mechanisms remain poorly understood. D2 receptor signaling may mediate protein kinase B, arrestin beta 2, and GSK-3 activity, and inhibition of these proteins results in stunting of the hyperlocomotion in amphetamine treated rats. Dopamine receptors can also transactivate Receptor tyrosine kinases.
Beta Arrestin recruitment is mediated by G-protein kinases that phosphorylate and inactivate dopamine receptors after stimulation. While beta arrestin plays a role in receptor desensitization, it may also be critical in mediating downstream effects of dopamine receptors. Beta arrestin has been shown to form complexes with MAP kinase, leading to activation of Extracellular signal–regulated kinases. Furthermore, this pathway has been demonstrated to be involved in the locomotor response mediated by dopamine receptor D1. Dopamine receptor D2 stimulation results in the formation of an Akt/Beta-arrestin/PP2A protein complex that inhibits Akt through PP2A phosphorylation, therefore disinhibiting GSK-3.
Dopamine receptors control neural signaling that modulates many important behaviors, such as spatial working memory. Dopamine also plays an important role in the reward system, incentive salience, cognition, prolactin release, emesis and motor function.
In humans, the pulmonary artery expresses D1, D2, D4, and D5 and receptor subtypes, which may account for vasodilatory effects of dopamine in the blood. Such receptor subtypes have also been discovered in the epicardium, myocardium, and endocardium of the heart. In rats, D1-like receptors are present on the smooth muscle of the blood vessels in most major organs.
D4 receptors have been identified in the atria of rat and human hearts. Dopamine increases myocardial contractility and cardiac output, without changing heart rate, by signaling through dopamine receptors.
Dopamine receptors are present along the nephron in the kidney, with proximal tubule epithelial cells showing the highest density. In rats, D1-like receptors are present on the juxtaglomerular apparatus and on renal tubules, while D2-like receptors are present on the glomeruli, zona glomerulosa cells of the adrenal cortex, renal tubules, and postganglionic sympathetic nerve terminals. Dopamine signaling affects diuresis and natriuresis.
Dysfunction of dopaminergic neurotransmission in the CNS has been implicated in a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders, including social phobia, Tourette's syndrome, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, neuroleptic malignant syndrome, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and drug and alcohol dependence.
Dopamine receptors have been recognized as important components in the mechanism of ADHD for many years. Drugs used to treat ADHD, including methylphenidate and amphetamine, have significant effects on neuronal dopamine signaling. Studies of gene association have implicated several genes within dopamine signaling pathways; in particular, the D4.7 variant of D4 has been consistently shown to be more frequent in ADHD patients. ADHD patients with the 4.7 allele also tend to have better cognitive performance and long-term outcomes compared to ADHD patients without the 4.7 allele, suggesting that the allele is associated with a more benign form of ADHD.
Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter involved in the reward pathway in the brain. Thus, drugs that increase dopamine signaling may produce euphoric effects. Many recreational drugs, such as cocaine and substituted amphetamines, inhibit the dopamine transporter (DAT), the protein responsible for removing dopamine from the neural synapse. When DAT activity is blocked, the synapse floods with dopamine and increases dopaminergic signaling. When this occurs, particularly in the nucleus accumbens, increased D1 and decreased D2 receptor signaling mediates the "rewarding" stimulus of drug intake.
While there is evidence that the dopamine system is involved in schizophrenia, the theory that hyperactive dopaminergic signal transduction induces the disease is controversial. Psychostimulants, such as amphetamine and cocaine, indirectly increase dopamine signaling; large doses and prolonged use can induce symptoms that resemble schizophrenia. Additionally, many antipsychotic drugs target dopamine receptors, especially D2 receptors.
Dopamine receptors are typically stable, however sharp (and sometimes prolonged) increases or decreases in dopamine levels can downregulate (reduce the numbers of) or upregulate (increase the numbers of) dopamine receptors.
Haloperidol, and some other antipsychotics, have been shown to increase the binding capacity of the D2 receptor when used over long periods of time (i.e. increasing the number of such receptors). Haloperidol increased the number of binding sites by 98% above baseline in the worst cases, and yielded significant dyskinesia side effects.
Addictive stimuli have variable effects on dopamine receptors, depending on the particular stimulus. According to one study, cocaine, heroin, amphetamine, alcohol, and nicotine cause decreases in D2 receptor quantity. A similar association has been linked to food addiction, with a low availability of dopamine receptors present in people with greater food intake. A recent news article summarized a U.S. DOE Brookhaven National Laboratory study showing that increasing dopamine receptors with genetic therapy temporarily decreased cocaine consumption by up to 75%. The treatment was effective for 6 days. Cocaine upregulates D3 receptors in the nucleus accumbens, possibly contributing to drug seeking behavior.
Certain stimulants will enhance cognition in the general population (e.g., direct or indirect mesocortical DRD1 agonists as a class), but only when used at low (therapeutic) concentrations. Relatively high doses of dopaminergic stimulants will result in cognitive deficits.
|Form of neuroplasticity
or behavioral plasticity
|Type of reinforcer||Sources|
|Opiates||Psychostimulants||High fat or sugar food||Sexual intercourse||Physical exercise
|ΔFosB expression in
nucleus accumbens D1-type MSNs
|Escalation of intake||Yes||Yes||Yes|||
conditioned place preference
|Reinstatement of drug-seeking behavior||↑||↑||↓||↓|||
in the nucleus accumbens
|Sensitized dopamine response
in the nucleus accumbens
|Altered striatal dopamine signaling||↓DRD2, ↑DRD3||↑DRD1, ↓DRD2, ↑DRD3||↑DRD1, ↓DRD2, ↑DRD3||↑DRD2||↑DRD2|||
|Altered striatal opioid signaling||No change or
|↑μ-opioid receptors||↑μ-opioid receptors||No change||No change|||
|Changes in striatal opioid peptides||↑dynorphin
No change: enkephalin
|Mesocorticolimbic synaptic plasticity|
|Number of dendrites in the nucleus accumbens||↓||↑||↑|||
|Dendritic spine density in
the nucleus accumbens
Cross-sensitization is also bidirectional, as a history of amphetamine administration facilitates sexual behavior and enhances the associated increase in NAc DA ... As described for food reward, sexual experience can also lead to activation of plasticity-related signaling cascades. The transcription factor delta FosB is increased in the NAc, PFC, dorsal striatum, and VTA following repeated sexual behavior (Wallace et al., 2008; Pitchers et al., 2010b). This natural increase in delta FosB or viral overexpression of delta FosB within the NAc modulates sexual performance, and NAc blockade of delta FosB attenuates this behavior (Hedges et al, 2009; Pitchers et al., 2010b). Further, viral overexpression of delta FosB enhances the conditioned place preference for an environment paired with sexual experience (Hedges et al., 2009). ... In some people, there is a transition from “normal” to compulsive engagement in natural rewards (such as food or sex), a condition that some have termed behavioral or non-drug addictions (Holden, 2001; Grant et al., 2006a). ... In humans, the role of dopamine signaling in incentive-sensitization processes has recently been highlighted by the observation of a dopamine dysregulation syndrome in some patients taking dopaminergic drugs. This syndrome is characterized by a medication-induced increase in (or compulsive) engagement in non-drug rewards such as gambling, shopping, or sex (Evans et al, 2006; Aiken, 2007; Lader, 2008)."Table 1"
The present meta-analysis was conducted to estimate the magnitude of the effects of methylphenidate and amphetamine on cognitive functions central to academic and occupational functioning, including inhibitory control, working memory, short-term episodic memory, and delayed episodic memory. In addition, we examined the evidence for publication bias. Forty-eight studies (total of 1,409 participants) were included in the analyses. We found evidence for small but significant stimulant enhancement effects on inhibitory control and short-term episodic memory. Small effects on working memory reached significance, based on one of our two analytical approaches. Effects on delayed episodic memory were medium in size. However, because the effects on long-term and working memory were qualified by evidence for publication bias, we conclude that the effect of amphetamine and methylphenidate on the examined facets of healthy cognition is probably modest overall. In some situations, a small advantage may be valuable, although it is also possible that healthy users resort to stimulants to enhance their energy and motivation more than their cognition. ... Earlier research has failed to distinguish whether stimulants’ effects are small or whether they are nonexistent (Ilieva et al., 2013; Smith & Farah, 2011). The present findings supported generally small effects of amphetamine and methylphenidate on executive function and memory. Specifically, in a set of experiments limited to high-quality designs, we found significant enhancement of several cognitive abilities. ...
The results of this meta-analysis cannot address the important issues of individual differences in stimulant effects or the role of motivational enhancement in helping perform academic or occupational tasks. However, they do confirm the reality of cognitive enhancing effects for normal healthy adults in general, while also indicating that these effects are modest in size.
Mild dopaminergic stimulation of the prefrontal cortex enhances working memory. ...
Therapeutic (relatively low) doses of psychostimulants, such as methylphenidate and amphetamine, improve performance on working memory tasks both in normal subjects and those with ADHD. Positron emission tomography (PET) demonstrates that methylphenidate decreases regional cerebral blood flow in the doroslateral prefrontal cortex and posterior parietal cortex while improving performance of a spatial working memory task. This suggests that cortical networks that normally process spatial working memory become more efficient in response to the drug. ... [It] is now believed that dopamine and norepinephrine, but not serotonin, produce the beneficial effects of stimulants on working memory. At abused (relatively high) doses, stimulants can interfere with working memory and cognitive control ... stimulants act not only on working memory function, but also on general levels of arousal and, within the nucleus accumbens, improve the saliency of tasks. Thus, stimulants improve performance on effortful but tedious tasks ... through indirect stimulation of dopamine and norepinephrine receptors.