Modern views on an ancient chemical: serotonin effects on cell proliferation, maturation, and apoptosis

Brain Res Bull. 2001 Nov 15;56(5):413-24. doi: 10.1016/s0361-9230(01)00614-1.


Evolutionarily, serotonin existed in plants even before the appearance of animals. Indeed, serotonin may be tied to the evolution of life itself, particularly through the role of tryptophan, its precursor molecule. Tryptophan is an indole-based, essential amino acid which is unique in its light-absorbing properties. In plants, tryptophan-based compounds capture light energy for use in metabolism of glucose and the generation of oxygen and reduced cofactors. Tryptophan, oxygen, and reduced cofactors combine to form serotonin. Serotonin-like molecules direct the growth of light-capturing structures towards the source of light. This morphogenic property also occurs in animal cells, in which serotonin alters the cytoskeleton of cells and thus influences the formation of contacts. In addition, serotonin regulates cell proliferation, migration and maturation in a variety of cell types, including lung, kidney, endothelial cells, mast cells, neurons and astrocytes). In brain, serotonin has interactions with seven families of receptors, numbering at least 14 distinct proteins. Of these, two receptors are important for the purposes of this review. These are the 5-HT1A and 5-HT2A receptors, which in fact have opposing functions in a variety of cellular and behavioral processes. The 5-HT1A receptor develops early in the CNS and is associated with secretion of S-100beta from astrocytes and reduction of c-AMP levels in neurons. These actions provide intracellular stability for the cytoskeleton and result in cell differentiation and cessation of proliferation. Clinically, 5-HT1A receptor drugs decrease brain activity and act as anxiolytics. The 5-HT2A receptor develops more slowly and is associated with glycogenolysis in astrocytes and increased Ca(++) availability in neurons. These actions destabilize the internal cytoskeleton and result in cell proliferation, synaptogenesis, and apoptosis. In humans, 5-HT2A receptor drugs produce hallucinations. The dynamic interactions between the 5-HT1A and 5-HT2A receptors and the cytoskeleton may provide important insights into the etiology of brain disorders and provide novel strategies for their treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / physiology*
  • Astrocytes / cytology
  • Astrocytes / metabolism
  • Cell Differentiation / physiology*
  • Cell Division / physiology*
  • Central Nervous System / cytology
  • Central Nervous System / growth & development
  • Central Nervous System / metabolism*
  • Cytoskeleton / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Receptors, Serotonin / drug effects
  • Receptors, Serotonin / metabolism*
  • Serotonin / metabolism*


  • Receptors, Serotonin
  • Serotonin