Catecholamine (CA) is a naturally occurring protein present in the human body. Functioning like neurotransmitters, catecholamines assist in directing the central nervous system's (CNS) activities. Catecholamines are basically amines which also function like hormones in our endocrine system. Some of the catecholamines include dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine.

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Catecholamines are generated in the adrenal glands and their levels in our body may ebb and flow subject to emotional and physical stress. A number of other environmental or physical aspects like ambient temperature, blood sugar and loss of blood from the body can also have an effect on the levels of catecholamines.

These chemical compounds are soluble in water. In the human body, catecholamines are made synthetically from amino acid tyrosine. Catecholamines are categorized as adrenal hormones as they are made as well as released into the bloodstream when the preganglionic sympathetic nerves in the adrenal medulla are stimulated. Usually, this happens when an individual is under stress owing to physical exertion, excitement, pain or even emotional trauma. On the other hand, low blood sugar levels may also trigger production of catecholamines.

Since catecholamine production and release are associated with stress, it is expected that they can cause specific biological reactions. In fact, when there is profuse production of catecholamines a number of biological reactions are associated with it. Dopamine is among the "feel good" hormones which results in a sense of euphoria. On the other hand, epinephrine and norepinephrine causes a different feeling as they act on our central nervous system, thereby increasing the blood pressure and heart rate. Actually, these varieties of catecholamines initiate the "fight or flight" response. Nonetheless, it is interesting that epinephrine as well as norepinephrine is produced as by-products in the process involved in the production of dopamine.

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When there unusually high levels of catecholamines circulate in the bloodstream, it may be a sign of toxicity. It may also indicate that there is some kind of medical problem in the individual. For instance, exceptionally elevated levels of catecholamines may happen owing to monoamine oxidase A deficiency. Precisely speaking, monoamine oxidase A works to degrade such types of hormones naturally immediately after they are released. So when there is a deficiency of this agent in the body, levels of catecholamines and other similar hormones rise to unusually high levels. Similarly, elevated levels of catecholamines may also have a relation with many rare medical disorders, for instance neuroblastoma and ganglioneuroma. Moreover, there can also be a hypertensive disorder called pheochromocytoma when the adrenal gland is affected by a chormaffin cell tumour. At the same time, there are many medicines that may also be responsible for augmented production of catecholamine. Some of these medicines include insulin, caffeine, lithium, tetracycline, levodopa and nitroglycerin.

If you suspect that you are suffering from a disorder related to an adrenal hormone, your physician may ask you to undertake blood and urine tests. In fact, urine samples are more effective in this case as they provide more precise readings. Catecholamine levels are measured as nanograms per millilitre and they are stated as ng/100 mL. The normal level of catecholamine in the bloodstream may vary from one individual to another. In fact, the results may even vary depending on the testing facilities. Overall, the normal level of norepinephine is said to be 60 ng/mL and that of epinephrine is considered to be 20 ng/mL.

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Often patients are counselled to do everything possible by them to prevent becoming physically stressed or emotionally charged before undergoing urine and blood tests to gauge the production and levels of catecholamines in their body. In fact, such patients should stay away from specific foods for many days before they undergo testing. For instance, they should avoid beverages that are loaded with caffeine, and bananas, citrus fruits, vanilla and chocolate, as these foods contribute to augmented catecholamine production in the body. Nevertheless, the patients should not stop taking any medicine without their physician's advice, even if they know that some medications may augment production of such adrenal hormones.

In case it is found that the levels of catecholamines in one's body are very high, there is treatment to rectify the condition. Usually, the treatment for lowering the levels of chatecholamines is in the form of agents that work to hold back the alpha and beta adrenoceptors, which are found in the smooth muscle tissue. Commonly these antagonists are called alpha-blockers and beta-blockers respectively.

Mainly the chromaffin cells found in the adrenal cells as well as postganglionic fibers of our sympathetic nervous system produce catecholamines. On the other hand, dopamine, which works in the form of neurotransmitters in our central nervous system, is mostly produced in the neuronal cell bodies located in two different areas of the brainstem. These areas where the neuronal cell bodies are located are known as the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental. The substantia nigra encloses neuromelanin-pigmented neurons. Similarly, neuromelanin-pigmented cell bodies located in the locus coeruleus generate norepinephrine. On the other hand, epinephrine is turned out in small neuron groups in the human brain. These neuron groups convey epinephrine’s synthesizing enzyme known as phenylethanolamine N-methyltransferase. It is worth mentioning here that these neurons map out from an adjacent nucleus (ventrolateral) to the postrema area and develop into a nucleus in the solitary tract's dorsal region.

Abnormally elevated or low levels of catecholamines in an individual can lead to medical problems. In fact, both unusually high and low levels of catecholamines are harmful. When this occurs, especially when many catecholamines are involved, can be a sign of some serious fundamental medical problem.

Catecholamines function

All the three types of catecholamines, which include dopamine, norepinephrine as well as epinephrine, are vital neurotransmitters in our central nervous system and they all have crucial roles in the autonomic control of numerous homeostatic functions, such as bronchial and intestinal smooth muscle tone, vascular tone, glucose metabolism and cardiac rate as well as contractility. The alpha and beta adrenergic receptors as well as dopamine receptors mediate their actions. The alpha and beta adrenergic receptors and dopamine receptors exist in numerous sub-forms. These three catecholamines - epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine overlap each other, but, at the same time, they also differ in their profile of receptor activation and also the resulting biological actions.

It has been found that catecholamines result in common physiological changes that makes the body ready for necessary actions ("fight or flight"). Some of the characteristic changes brought about by the catecholamines include increased blood pressure, heart rate, elevated glucose levels in the bloodstream as well as a broad response of the sympathetic nervous system.

In the central nervous system, dopamine and norepinephrine also function as neuromodulators do. On the other hand, they work like the hormones do in our blood circulation. Similarly, the catecholamine norepinephrine functions in the form of a neuromodulator of the peripheral nervous system, while it is also found in the blood (more often than not through "overflow" from the sympathetic nervous system’'s synapses).

Presence of elevated levels of catecholamines in the bloodstream is generally associated with stress. Such stress can be stimulated due to physical reactions or even environmental stressors like intense light, extremely high levels of sound and even low levels of blood sugar.

Sometimes, there may be very high levels of catecholamines (a condition that is called catecholamine toxicity) in the central nervous system and this may cause trauma owing to inducement and/or injury of the nuclei in the brainstem, especially the nuclei that affects the sympathetic nervous system. In the case of emergency medicine, this condition is generally called catecholamine dump.

At the same time, unusually elevated levels of catecholamine may also occur owing to neuroendocrine tumors in the adrenal medulla. This condition is known as pheochromocytoma and can be treated.

Characteristics and release

Catecholamines belong to both hormone and neurotransmitter families. These chemical compounds are produced by the brain, nerve tissue as well as the adrenal glands that are found on top of the kidneys in the human body. The name of this chemical compound has been derived from the chemical arrangement of a benzene ring (known as catechol) and an amine (group comprising nitrogen). Catecholamines can work as neurotransmitters that carry signals through the nervous system and also function as hormones, which pass on signals from the blood to the tissues and organs. Dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) are among the three most recognized catecholamines.

If you follow the normal path of dopamine, you will find that it is first produced in the brain. Subsequently, it travels via the nervous system and then let god from vesicles in one nerve cell into the synapse. Almost immediately it attaches to a dopamine receptor on the adjoining nerve cell. Such type of neurotransmission results in different types of feelings, which also include motivation. Ultimately, dopamine is released from the vesicles into the bloodstream. After this dopamine binds to receptors on numerous different types of tissues, which, in turn, results in decreased blood pressure as well as lower excretion from the kidneys.


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