The neuropharmacology of yawning

Eur J Pharmacol. 1998 Feb 5;343(1):1-16. doi: 10.1016/s0014-2999(97)01538-0.


Yawning is a phylogenetically old, stereotyped event that occurs alone or associated with stretching and/or penile erection in humans and in animals from reptiles to birds and mammals under different conditions. Although its physiological function is still unknown, yawning is under the control of several neurotransmitters and neuropeptides at the central level as this short overview of the literature on the neurochemistry of yawning shows. Among these substances, the best known are dopamine, excitatory amino acids, acetylcholine, serotonin, nitric oxide, adrenocorticotropic hormone-related peptides and oxytocin, that facilitate yawning and opioid peptides that inhibit this behavioral response. Some of the above compounds interact in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus to control yawning. This hypothalamic nucleus contains the cell bodies of oxytocinergic neurons projecting to extra-hypothalamic brain areas that play a key role in the expression of this behavioral event. When activated by dopamine, excitatory amino acids and oxytocin itself, these neurons facilitate yawning by releasing oxytocin at sites distant form the paraventricular nucleus, i.e. the hippocampus, the pons and/or the medulla oblongata. Conversely, activation of these neurons by dopamine, oxytocin or excitatory amino acids, is antagonized by opioid peptides, that, in turn, prevent the yawning response. The activation and inhibition, respectively of these oxytocinergic neurons is related to a concomitant increase and decrease, respectively, of paraventricular nitric oxide synthase activity. However, other neuronal systems in addition to the central paraventricular oxytocinergic neurons are involved in the control of yawning, since they do not seem to be involved in the expression of yawning induced by the stimulation of acetylcholine or serotoninergic receptors, nor by adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and related peptides. Nitric oxide is also involved in the induction of yawning by the latter compounds and neuronal links, for instance between dopamine and acetylcholine and dopamine and serotonin, seem to be involved in the yawning response. Finally, other neurotransmitters, i.e. gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and noradrenaline, and neuropeptides, i.e. neurotensin and luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LH-RH), influence this behavioral response. In conclusion, in spite of some recent progress, little is known of, and more has to be done to identify, the neurochemical mechanisms underlying yawning at the central level.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / chemistry
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology
  • Penile Erection / physiology
  • Reflex, Stretch / physiology
  • Yawning / physiology*


  • Neurotransmitter Agents