The catecholamines (dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine) are derived from tyrosine via a series of enzymatic conversions. All 3 catecholamines are important neurotransmitters in the central nervous system and also play a crucial role in the autonomic regulation of many homeostatic functions, namely, vascular tone, intestinal and bronchial smooth muscle tone, cardiac rate and contractility, and glucose metabolism. Their actions are mediated via alpha and beta adrenergic receptors and dopamine receptors, all existing in several subforms. The 3 catecholamines overlap, but also differ in their receptor activation profile and consequent biological actions. The systemically circulating fraction of the catecholamines is derived almost exclusively from the adrenal medulla, with small contributions from sympathetic ganglia.
The catecholamines are normally present in the plasma in minute amounts, but levels can increase dramatically and rapidly in response to change in posture, environmental temperature, physical and emotional stress, hypovolemia, blood loss, hypotension, hypoglycemia, and exercise.
In patients with pheochromocytoma (a potentially curable tumor of catecholamine-producing cells of the adrenal medulla), or less commonly of sympathetic ganglia (paraganglioma), plasma catecholamine levels may be continuously or episodically elevated. This results in episodic or sustained hypertension and in intermittent attacks of palpitations, cardiac arrhythmias, headache, sweating, pallor, anxiety, tremor, and nausea. Intermittent or continuous elevations of the plasma levels of 1 or several of the catecholamines may also be observed in patients with neuroblastoma and related tumors (ganglioneuroblastomas and ganglioneuromas) and, very occasionally, in other neuroectodermal tumors.
At the other end of the spectrum, inherited and acquired syndromes of autonomic dysfunction or failure and autonomic neuropathies are characterized by either inadequate production of 1 or several of the catecholamines or by insufficient release of catecholamines upon appropriate physiological stimuli (eg, change in posture from supine to standing, cold exposure, exercise, stress).