Catecholamine Metabolism: A Contemporary View with Implications for Physiology and Medicine

  • Eisenhofer G
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This article provides an update about catecholamine metabolism, with emphasis on correcting common misconceptions relevant to catecholamine systems in health and disease. Importantly, most metabolism of catecholamines takes place within the same cells where the amines are synthesized. This mainly occurs secondary to leakage of catecholamines from vesicular stores into the cytoplasm. These stores exist in a highly dynamic equilibrium, with passive outward leakage counterbalanced by inward active transport controlled by vesicular monoamine transporters. In catecholaminergic neurons, the presence of monoamine oxidase leads to formation of reactive catecholaldehydes. Production of these toxic aldehydes depends on the dynamics of vesicular-axoplasmic monoamine exchange and enzyme-catalyzed conversion to nontoxic acids or alcohols. In sympathetic nerves, the aldehyde produced from norepinephrine is converted to 3,4-dihydroxyphenylglycol, not 3,4-dihydroxymandelic acid. Subsequent extraneuronal O-methylation consequently leads to production of 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycol, not vanillylmandelic acid. Vanillylmandelic acid is instead formed in the liver by oxidation of 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycol catalyzed by alcohol and aldehyde dehydrogenases. Compared to intraneuronal deamination, extraneuronal O-methylation of norepinephrine and epinephrine to metanephrines represent minor pathways of metabolism. The single largest source of metanephrines is the adrenal medulla. Similarly, pheochromocytoma tumor cells produce large amounts of metanephrines from catecholamines leaking from stores. Thus, these metabolites are particularly useful for detecting pheochromocytomas. The large contribution of intraneuronal deamination to catecholamine turnover, and dependence of this on the vesicular-axoplasmic monoamine exchange process, helps explain how synthesis, release, metabolism, turnover, and stores of catecholamines are regulated in a coordinated fashion during stress and in disease states.

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  • G. Eisenhofer

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