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Semin Clin Neuropsychiatry. 2000 Apr;5(2):125-31.

Serotonin and amino acids: partners in delirium pathophysiology?

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Psychiatric Hospital Amsterdam, and The Department of Psychiatry, Section Pathophysiology of Behavior, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands.


Delirium may be the result of dysfunction of multiple interacting neurotransmitter systems. Changes in the levels of various amino acids being precursors of cerebral neurotransmitters may affect their function and, thus, contribute to the development of delirium. Serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters that may play an important role in medical and surgical delirium. Normal serotonin synthesis and release in the human brain is, among others, dependent on the availability of its precursor tryptophan (Trp) from blood. The essential amino acid Trp competes with the other large neutral amino acids (LNAA) tyrosine, phenylalanine, valine, leucine, and isoleucine for transport across the blood-brain barrier. This competition determines its uptake into the brain, represented by the ratio of the plasma level of Trp to the sum of the other LNAA. The plasma ratio of Trp/LNAA, plasma level of Trp, and serotonin in plasma and platelets have been used as indirect peripheral measures for central serotonergic functioning. Both increased and decreased serotonergic activity have been associated with delirium. Serotonin agonists can induce psychosis, both elevated Trp availability and increased cerebral serotonin have been associated with hepatic encephalopathy, and excess serotonergic brain activity has been related to the development of the serotonin syndrome of which delirium is a main symptom. On the other hand, alcohol withdrawal delirium, delirium in levodopa-treated Parkinson patients, and postoperative delirium have been related to reduce cerebral Trp availability from plasma suggesting diminished serotonergic function. Rick factors for delirium such as severe illness, surgery, and trauma can induce immune activation and a physical stress response comprising increased activity of the limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis, the occurrence of a low T3 syndrome, and, possibly, changes in the permeability of the blood-brain barrier. There are indications that these changes have their effect on plasma amino acid concentrations, e.g., Trp, and multiple cerebral neurotransmitters, including serotonin. This stress response may be different depending on the stage of illness being acute or chronic. It will require further study to determine the complex influence of the stress response and immune activation on plasma amino acids, neurotransmitter function and the development of delirium, especially in the more vulnerable older patients.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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