Researchers have identified _____ kinds of dopamine receptors throughout the brain

Posted on:January 27, 2018

Last Updated: January 12, 2022

Researchers have identified _____ kinds of dopamine receptors throughout the brain
Time to read: 6 minutes

The dopamine hypothesis stems from early research carried out in the 1960’s and 1970’s when studies involved the use of amphetamine (increases dopamine levels) which increased psychotic symptoms while reserpine which depletes dopamine levels reduced psychotic symptoms.

The original dopamine hypothesis was put forward by Van Rossum in 1967 that stated that there was hyperactivity of dopamine transmission, which resulted in symptoms of schizophrenia and drugs that blocked dopamine reduced psychotic symptoms. [1]

Dopamine is synthesised from the amino acid tyrosine. Tyrosine is converted into DOPA by the enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase.

DOPA is converted into dopamine (DA) by the enzyme DOPA decarboxylase (DOPADC).

This dopamine is packed and stored into synaptic vesicles via the vesicular monoamine transporter (VMAT2) and stored until its release into the synapse.

Researchers have identified _____ kinds of dopamine receptors throughout the brain

Dopamine Receptors:

When dopamine is released during neurotransmission, it acts on 5 types of postsynaptic receptors (D1-D5).

A negative feedback mechanism exists through the presynaptic D2 receptor which regulates the release of dopamine from the presynaptic neuron.

Researchers have identified _____ kinds of dopamine receptors throughout the brain

Dopamine Breakdown

Researchers have identified _____ kinds of dopamine receptors throughout the brain

Any excess dopamine is also ‘mopped up’ from the synapse by Dopamine transporter (DAT) and stored in the vesicles via VMAT2.

Dopamine is broken down by monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A), MAO-B and catechol-o-methyltransferase (COMT).

Learning points:

  1. Tyrosine hydroxylase is the rate-limiting step in the production of dopamine. Its expression is significantly increased in the substantia nigra of schizophrenia patients when compared to normal healthy subjects. [2]
  2. Carbidopa is a peripheral DOPA-decarboxylase inhibitor co-administered with levodopa. Carbidopa prevents the conversion of levodopa to dopamine in the periphery, thus allowing more levodopa to pass the blood-brain barrier to be converted into dopamine for its therapeutic effect.
  3. Methamphetamine increases extracellular dopamine by interacting at vesicular monoamine transporter-2 (VMAT2) to inhibit dopamine uptake and promote dopamine release from synaptic vesicles, increasing cytosolic dopamine available for reverse transport by the dopamine transporter (DAT).
  4. Valbenazine a highly selective VMAT2 inhibitor has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of tardive dyskinesia.
  5. There is compelling evidence that presynaptic dopamine dysfunction results in increased availability and release of dopamine and this has been shown to be associated with prodromal symptoms of schizophrenia. Furthermore, dopamine synthesis capacity has also been shown to steadily increase with the onset of severe psychotic symptoms. [3]
  6. Dopaminergic transmission in the prefrontal cortex is mainly mediated by D1 receptors, and D1 dysfunction has been linked to cognitive impairment and negative symptoms of schizophrenia. [4]

Researchers have identified _____ kinds of dopamine receptors throughout the brain

1.The Mesolimbic Pathway

  • The pathway projects from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the nucleus accumbens in the limbic system.
  • Hyperactivity of dopamine in the mesolimbic pathway mediates positive psychotic symptoms. The pathway may also mediate aggression.
  • The mesolimbic pathway is also the site of the rewards pathway and mediates pleasure and reward. Antipsychotics can block D2 receptors in this pathway reducing pleasure effects. This may be one explanation as to why individuals with schizophrenia have a higher incidence of smoking as nicotine enhances dopamine in the reward pathway (self-medication hypothesis)
  • Antagonism of D2 receptors in the mesolimbic pathway treats positive psychotic symptoms.
  • There is an occupancy requirement with the minimum threshold at 65% occupancy for treatment to be effective. Observations support this relationship between D2-receptor occupancy and clinical response that 80% of responders have D2-receptor occupancy above this threshold after treatment. [5]

2.The Mesocortical Pathway

  • Projects from the VTA to the prefrontal cortex.
  • Projections to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex regulate cognition and executive functioning.
  • Projections into the ventromedial prefrontal cortex regulate emotions and affect.
  • Decreased dopamine in the mesocortical projection to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is postulated to be responsible for negative and depressive symptoms of schizophrenia.
  • Nicotine releases dopamine in the mesocortical pathways alleviating negative symptoms (self-medication hypothesis).

3.The Nigrostriatal Pathway

  • Projects from the dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra to the basal ganglia or striatum.
  • The nigrostriatal pathway mediates motor movements.
  • Blockade of dopamine D2 receptors in this pathway can lead to dystonia, parkinsonian symptoms and akathisia.
  • Hyperactivity of dopamine in the nigrostriatal pathway is the postulated mechanism in hyperkinetic movement disorders such as chorea, tics and dyskinesias.
  • Long-standing D2 blockade in the nigrostriatal pathway can lead to tardive dyskinesia. 

4.The Tuberoinfundibular (TI) Pathway

  • Projects from the hypothalamus to the anterior pituitary.
  • The TI pathway inhibits prolactin release.
  • Blockade of D2 receptors in this pathway can lead to hyperprolactinemia which clinically manifests as amenorrhoea, galactorrhoea and sexual dysfunction.
  • Long-term hyperprolactinemia can be associated with osteoporosis.

Conceptualisation of Schizophrenia

Based on the above understanding, schizophrenia is best conceptualised as a complex entity which involves multiple pathways.

Researchers have identified _____ kinds of dopamine receptors throughout the brain

In clinical practice, there can be a disproportionate focus on positive psychotic symptoms.

It is however, important to recognise that affective (e.g depressive), negative and cognitive symptoms are a core part of schizophrenia and should be taken into account in treatment.

The aim of treatment, thus, is to modulate treatment creating a balance between effectiveness and reduction of side effects.

The balance is achieved by optimal dopamine blockade in the mesolimbic pathway while preserving (or enhancing) dopamine transmission in the other pathways.


The dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia has moved from the dopamine receptor hypothesis (increased dopamine transmission at the postsynaptic receptors) to a focus on presynaptic striatal hyperdopaminergia.

According to Howes and Kapur-

This hypothesis accounts for the multiple environmental and genetic risk factors for schizophrenia and proposes that these interact to funnel through one final common pathway of presynaptic striatal hyperdopaminergia.

In addition to funneling through dopamine dysregulation, the multiple environmental and genetic risk factors influence diagnosis by affecting other aspects of brain function that underlie negative and cognitive symptoms. Schizophrenia is thus dopamine dysregulation in the context of a compromised brain. [6]

Read more on the molecular imaging of dopamine abnormalities in schizophrenia. 

Clinical Implications

The hypothesis that the final common pathway is presynaptic dopamine dysregulation has some important clinical implications. Firstly, it implies that current antipsychotic drugs are not treating the primary abnormality and are acting downstream. While antipsychotic drugs block the effect of inappropriate dopamine release, they may paradoxically worsen the primary abnormality by blocking presynaptic D2 autoreceptors, resulting in a compensatory increase in dopamine synthesis.

This may explain why patients relapse rapidly on stopping their medication, and if the drugs may even worsen the primary abnormality, it also accounts for more severe relapse after discontinuing treatment. This suggests that drug development needs to focus on modulating presynaptic striatal dopamine function, either directly or through upstream effects. [6]

Concept of Salience

Usually, dopamine’s role is to mediate motivational salience and thereby gives a person the ability to determine what stimulus grabs their attention and drives the subsequent behaviour.

Schizophrenia is associated with an aberrant attribution of salience due to dysregulated striatal dopamine transmission.

Dysregulation of the dopamine system ultimately leads to irrelevant stimuli becoming more prominent which provides a basis for psychotic phenomena such as ideas of reference, where everyday occurrences may be layered with a with a heightened sense of bizarre significance.  Furthermore, this misattribution of salience can lead to paranoid behaviour and persecutory delusions. [7]


Current research shows that one-third of individuals with schizophrenia do not respond to non-clozapine antipsychotics despite high levels of D2-receptor occupancy.

Furthermore, a study using tetrabenazine (used as augmentation) which depletes presynaptic dopamine was not found to be effective in augmenting a clinical response in schizophrenia. [8]

Therefore, for a significant number of patients with schizophrenia, the basis of their symptoms is either unrelated to dopaminergic dysfunction or is associated with something more than just dopamine excess.

Alternatively, this could also mean that for some patients with schizophrenia there might be a non-dopaminergic sub-type of schizophrenia.

The current dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia does not adequately explain the cognitive and negative symptoms. Current treatments which modulate dopamine transmission have only modest effects in improving these symptoms.

It has taken two decades for the dopamine hypothesis to evolve and reach its current state. More recent evidence shows another neurotransmitter, glutamate playing an essential role in schizophrenia.

The future likely holds a lot more secrets about schizophrenia which should unravel with the advances in understanding the brain.

Learn more:

Simplified Guide to Mechanisms of Action of Oral Antipsychotics


8. Tetrabenazine augmentation in treatment-resistant schizophrenia: a 12-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.

Remington, G., Kapur, S., Foussias, G., Agid, O., Mann, S., Borlido, C., … & Javaid, N. (2012). Tetrabenazine augmentation in treatment-resistant schizophrenia: a 12-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Journal of clinical psychopharmacology, 32(1), 95-99.