It has been suggested that the beta-carbolines harmane and norharmane may be involved in the pathophysiology of Parkinson's disease, psychosis and addiction, but the mechanisms of these possible effects remain to be elucidated. In the present study, the effects of the two compounds were examined by using in vivo extracellular recordings of ventral tegmental dopamine neurons. The effects of harmane (2mg/kg) and norharmane (2mg/kg), were compared to those of nicotine (11microg/kg), of cotinine (0.5mg/kg), of the monoamine-oxidase-A inhibitor befloxatone (0.12mg/kg), and of the monoamine-oxidase-B inhibitor selegiline (0.5mg/kg). The effects of harmane were also tested after pre-treatment with the nicotine receptor antagonist mecamylamine. The results show that all substances, except befloxatone, activate the firing and/or burst activity of dopamine neurons. The increase in firing rate produced by harmane was approximately 18 times greater than that produced by nicotine. Such powerful excitation of dopamine neurons by harmane may in part explain its involvement in neurotoxicity, psychosis and addiction. The absence of effect of befloxatone supports the hypothesis that the effect of harmane is not related to its monoamine-oxidase-A inhibitory properties. Mecamylamine inhibited by approximately 80% the activity of harmane, indicating that the activating effect of harmane on dopamine neurons involves several mechanisms, among which activation of nicotinic receptors likely has a prominent importance. The results of the present study support the hypothesis that harmane could be a tobacco (or smoke) component other than nicotine involved in tobacco dependence.
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