Neurobiology of executive functions: catecholamine influences on prefrontal cortical functions

Biol Psychiatry. 2005 Jun 1;57(11):1377-84. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2004.08.019.


The prefrontal cortex guides behaviors, thoughts, and feelings using representational knowledge, i.e., working memory. These fundamental cognitive abilities subserve the so-called executive functions: the ability to inhibit inappropriate behaviors and thoughts, regulate our attention, monitor our actions, and plan and organize for the future. Neuropsychological and imaging studies indicate that these prefrontal cortex functions are weaker in patients with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and contribute substantially to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptomology. Research in animals indicates that the prefrontal cortex is very sensitive to its neurochemical environment and that small changes in catecholamine modulation of prefrontal cortex cells can have profound effects on the ability of the prefrontal cortex to guide behavior. Optimal levels of norepinephrine acting at postsynaptic alpha-2A-adrenoceptors and dopamine acting at D1 receptors are essential to prefrontal cortex function. Blockade of norepinephrine alpha-2-adrenoceptors in prefrontal cortex markedly impairs prefrontal cortex function and mimics most of the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, including impulsivity and locomotor hyperactivity. Conversely, stimulation of alpha-2-adrenoceptors in prefrontal cortex strengthens prefrontal cortex regulation of behavior and reduces distractibility. Most effective treatments for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder facilitate catecholamine transmission and likely have their therapeutic actions by optimizing catecholamine actions in prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adamantane / analogs & derivatives*
  • Adamantane / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology
  • Benzopyrans / pharmacology
  • Catecholamines / pharmacology*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Guanfacine / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / drug effects
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Microscopy, Immunoelectron / methods
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Neurobiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / drug effects*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / ultrastructure
  • Problem Solving / drug effects
  • Problem Solving / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / drug effects


  • Benzopyrans
  • Catecholamines
  • A 77636
  • Guanfacine
  • Adamantane