Serotonin and norepinephrine involvement in efferent pathways to the urethral rhabdosphincter: implications for treating stress urinary incontinence

Urology. 2003 Oct;62(4 Suppl 1):3-9. doi: 10.1016/s0090-4295(03)00754-4.


Stress urinary incontinence (SUI), the most common form of incontinence, continues to be a largely underdiagnosed problem that imposes large financial and quality-of-life burdens on many women but has few treatment options. Ongoing animal and early human studies have shown that monoamine neurotransmitters play key roles in controlling urethral storage and micturition reflexes. Motor neurons found in the Onuf nucleus of the sacral spinal cord control urethral function, and have several unique properties that distinguish them from other motor neurons. First, the neurons are uniformly smaller than other surrounding motor neurons and have bundled dendrites, allowing strong synchronous activation or inhibition. Second, the neurons demonstrate unique neurochemical profiles. Unlike neurons in surrounding areas, the motor neurons of the Onuf nucleus have dense populations of noradrenergic and serotonergic terminals. Animal studies have shown that alpha1-adrenoceptors and serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine [5-HT]) receptors in the Onuf nucleus facilitate sphincter contraction. Agonists that stimulate these receptors facilitate the guarding or incontinence reflex, whereas antagonists that block the receptors inhibit this reflex. Therefore, boosting the effects of 5-HT and norepinephrine (NE) to enhance sphincter activity could be clinically promising for improving the symptoms of SUI. Importantly, the activity of the sphincter neurons can be increased pharmacologically during urine storage without interfering with bladder-sphincter synergy. Administering the 5-HT/NE uptake inhibitor duloxetine facilitates sphincter contraction during bladder filling but not during bladder contraction in micturition. This unique effect of duloxetine may be maintained by the selective neuromodulatory effects of 5-HT and NE on activation of sphincter motor neurons by the neurotransmitter glutamate. Prolonging the effect of naturally released NE and 5-HT with duloxetine could augment the body's normal processes for controlling urine storage and micturition. Early trials have demonstrated that duloxetine significantly reduces incontinence episodes and is well tolerated in the clinical setting.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic Uptake Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Adrenergic alpha-1 Receptor Agonists
  • Duloxetine Hydrochloride
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Motor Neurons / drug effects
  • Motor Neurons / physiology
  • Norepinephrine / physiology*
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, alpha-1 / physiology*
  • Receptors, Serotonin / drug effects
  • Receptors, Serotonin / physiology*
  • Reflex
  • Serotonin / physiology*
  • Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Thiophenes / therapeutic use*
  • Urethra / innervation
  • Urethra / physiopathology*
  • Urinary Incontinence, Stress / physiopathology
  • Urinary Incontinence, Stress / therapy*
  • Urination / drug effects
  • Urination / physiology


  • Adrenergic Uptake Inhibitors
  • Adrenergic alpha-1 Receptor Agonists
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, alpha-1
  • Receptors, Serotonin
  • Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors
  • Thiophenes
  • Serotonin
  • Duloxetine Hydrochloride
  • Norepinephrine