Dietary precursors and brain neurotransmitter formation

Annu Rev Med. 1981:32:413-25. doi: 10.1146/


The rates of synthesis of serotonin, acetylcholine, and, under certain circumstances, dopamine and norepinephrine by brain neurons depend considerably on the availability to brain of the respective dietary precursors. This precursor dependence seems to be related to the fact that the enzyme catalyzing the rate-limiting step in the synthetic pathway for each transmitter is unsaturated with substrate at normal brain concentrations. Moreover, brain levels of the individual precursors rise following oral or parenteral administration of the pure compound or the ingestion of certain foods. Precursor-induced increases in brain transmitter formation seem to influence a variety of brain functions and behaviors, which suggests that transmitter release has been enhanced. It now appears that these precursors may become useful as therapeutic agents for the treatment of selected disease states, wherein the disease is related to reduced release of transmitter. Examples of Parkinson's disease (tyrosine), myasthenia gravis (choline or phosphatidylcholine), depression (tyrosine), and possibly abnormal appetite (tryptophan). Perhaps the future will bring the identification of still other neurotransmitters, whose rates of synthesis depend on precursor availability. Two potential candidates for which some information is already available are glycine (a spinal cord transmitter) and the prostaglandins (some of which may function as neuromodulators or transmitters) (48, 49). Each time a new precursor-product relationship is described, an opportunity becomes available for determining whether the precursor might be useful in treating disease states related to reduced transmitter release by neurons. The opportunities are worth exploring, since the use of a natural dietary constituent, even in purified form, is likely to produce fewer unwanted side-effects than are seen following administration of synthetic drugs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / biosynthesis
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Catecholamines / biosynthesis
  • Diet*
  • Humans
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / biosynthesis*
  • Serotonin / biosynthesis


  • Catecholamines
  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Serotonin
  • Acetylcholine