Dopamine, T cells and multiple sclerosis (MS)

J Neural Transm (Vienna). 2017 May;124(5):525-542. doi: 10.1007/s00702-016-1640-4. Epub 2017 Mar 10.


Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter that induces critical effects in the nervous system and in many peripheral organs, via 5 dopamine receptors (DRs): D1R-D5R. Dopamine also induces many direct and very potent effects on many DR-expressing immune cells, primarily T cells and dendritic cells. In this review, we focus only on dopamine receptors, effects and production in T cells. Dopamine by itself (at an optimal concentration of~0.1 nM) induces multiple function of resting normal human T cells, among them: T cell adhesion, chemotactic migration, homing, cytokine secretion and others. Interestingly, dopamine activates resting effector T cells (Teffs), but suppresses regulatory T cells (Tregs), and both effects lead eventually to Teff activation. Dopamine-induced effects on T cells are dynamic, context-sensitive and determined by the: T cell activation state, T cell type, DR type, and dopamine concentration. Dopamine itself, and also few dopaminergic molecules/ drugs that are in clinical use for cardiac, neurological and other non-immune indications, have direct effects on human T cells (summarized in this review). These dopaminergic drugs include: dopamine = intropin, L-DOPA, bromocriptine, pramipexole, pergolide, haloperidol, pimozide, and amantadine. Other dopaminergic drugs were not yet tested for their direct effects on T cells. Extensive evidence in multiple sclerosis (MS) and experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) show dopaminergic dysregulations in T cells in these diseases: D1-like DRs are decreased in Teffs of MS patients, and dopamine does not affect these cells. In contrast, D1-like DRs are increased in Tregs of MS patients, possibly causing functional Treg impairment in MS. Treatment of MS patients with interferon β (IFN-β) increases D1-like DRs and decreases D2-like DRs in Teffs, decreases D1-like DRs in Tregs, and most important: restores responsiveness of patient's Teffs to dopamine. DR agonists and antagonists confer some benefits in EAE-afflicted animals. In a single clinical trial, MS patients did not benefit from bromocriptine, which is a D2-like DR agonist. Nevertheless, multiple evidence showing dopaminergic abnormalities in T cells in MS encourages testing other DR analogues/drugs in MS, possibly as "add-on" to IFN-β or other MS-immunomodulating therapies. Together, abnormalities in DRs in T cells can contribute to MS, and DRs in T cells can be therapeutic targets in MS. Finally and in a more general scope: the direct effects of all dopaminergic drugs on human T cells should be studied in further depth, and also taken into consideration whenever treating patients with any disease, to avoid detrimental side effects on the immune system of the patients.

Keywords: Dopamine; Dopamine receptors; Experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis; Multiple sclerosis; Neuroimmunology; Neuroimmunomodulation; T cells.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Multiple Sclerosis / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Dopamine / metabolism
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism*


  • Receptors, Dopamine
  • Dopamine