Expanding the repertoire of L-DOPA's actions: A comprehensive review of its functional neurochemistry

Prog Neurobiol. 2017 Apr;151:57-100. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2016.07.002. Epub 2016 Jul 4.


Though a multi-facetted disorder, Parkinson's disease is prototypically characterized by neurodegeneration of nigrostriatal dopaminergic neurons of the substantia nigra pars compacta, leading to a severe disruption of motor function. Accordingly, L-DOPA, the metabolic precursor of dopamine (DA), is well-established as a treatment for the motor deficits of Parkinson's disease despite long-term complications such as dyskinesia and psychiatric side-effects. Paradoxically, however, despite the traditional assumption that L-DOPA is transformed in residual striatal dopaminergic neurons into DA, the mechanism of action of L-DOPA is neither simple nor entirely clear. Herein, focussing on its influence upon extracellular DA and other neuromodulators in intact animals and experimental models of Parkinson's disease, we highlight effects other than striatal generation of DA in the functional profile of L-DOPA. While not excluding a minor role for glial cells, L-DOPA is principally transformed into DA in neurons yet, interestingly, with a more important role for serotonergic than dopaminergic projections. Moreover, in addition to the striatum, L-DOPA evokes marked increases in extracellular DA in frontal cortex, nucleus accumbens, the subthalamic nucleus and additional extra-striatal regions. In considering its functional profile, it is also important to bear in mind the marked (probably indirect) influence of L-DOPA upon cholinergic, GABAergic and glutamatergic neurons in the basal ganglia and/or cortex, while anomalous serotonergic transmission is incriminated in the emergence of L-DOPA elicited dyskinesia and psychosis. Finally, L-DOPA may exert intrinsic receptor-mediated actions independently of DA neurotransmission and can be processed into bioactive metabolites. In conclusion, L-DOPA exerts a surprisingly complex pattern of neurochemical effects of much greater scope that mere striatal transformation into DA in spared dopaminergic neurons. Their further experimental and clinical clarification should help improve both L-DOPA-based and novel strategies for controlling the motor and other symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

Keywords: Basal ganglia; Dopamine; Dyskinesia; Parkinson’s disease; Serotonin; Striatum.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain* / drug effects
  • Brain* / metabolism
  • Brain* / physiology
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Levodopa / pharmacology*
  • Neurochemistry


  • Levodopa
  • Dopamine