Phenylethylamine may be considered the parent compound from which sympathomimetic drugs are derived (Figure 9–4). This compound consists of a benzene ring with an ethylamine side chain. The presence of –OH groups at the 3 and 4 positions of the benzene ring yields sympathomimetic drugs collectively known as catecholamines. Additional substitutions made on (1) the benzene ring, (2) the terminal amino group, and (3) the α or β carbons produce catechols with different affinity for α and β receptors, from almost pure α agonists (methoxamine) to almost pure β agonists (isoproterenol).
Phenylethylamine and some important catecholamines. Catechol is shown for reference.
In addition to determining relative affinity to receptor subtypes, chemical structure also determines the pharmacokinetic properties and bioavailability of these molecules.
A. Substitution on the Benzene Ring
Maximal α and β activity is found with catecholamines, ie, drugs having –OH groups at the 3 and 4 positions on the benzene ring. The absence of one or the other of these groups dramatically reduces the potency of these drugs. For example, phenylephrine (Figure 9–5) is much less potent than epinephrine; its affinity to α receptors is decreased approximately 100-fold, but because its β activity is almost negligible except at very high concentrations, it is a selective α agonist.
On the other hand, the presence of –OH groups make catecholamines subject to inactivation by catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), and because this enzyme is found in the gut and liver, catecholamines are not active orally (see Chapter 6). Absence of one or both –OH groups on the phenyl ring increases the bioavailability after oral administration and prolongs the duration of action. Furthermore, absence of ring –OH groups tends to increase the distribution of the molecule to the central nervous system (CNS). For example, ephedrine and amphetamine (Figure 9–5) are orally active, have a prolonged duration of action, and produce central nervous system effects not typically observed with the catecholamines. Methamphetamine (“crystal meth,” a common drug of abuse) can be synthesized by simple dehydroxylation of ephedrine, which led to the restriction of over-the-counter distribution of its isomer pseudoephedrine.
Some examples of noncatecholamine sympathomimetic drugs. The isopropyl group is highlighted in color. Methamphetamine is amphetamine with one of the amine hydrogens replaced by a methyl group.
B. Substitution on the Amino Group
Increasing the size of alkyl substituents on the amino group tends to increase β-receptor activity. For example, methyl substitution on norepinephrine (yielding epinephrine) enhances activity at β2 receptors, and isopropyl substitution (yielding isoproterenol) increases β activity further. Conversely, the larger the substituent on the amino group, the lower is the activity at α receptors; for example, isoproterenol is very weak at α receptors. Beta2-selective agonists generally require a large amino substituent group.
C. Substitution on the Alpha Carbon
Substitutions at the α carbon (eg, ephedrine and amphetamine; Figure 9–5) block oxidation by monoamine oxidase (MAO), thus prolonging the duration of action of these drugs. Alpha-methyl compounds are also called phenylisopropylamines. In addition to their resistance to oxidation by MAO, some phenylisopropylamines have an enhanced ability to displace catecholamines from storage sites in noradrenergic nerves (see Chapter 6). Therefore, a portion of their activity is dependent on the presence of normal norepinephrine stores in the body; they are indirectly acting sympathomimetics.
D. Substitution on the Beta Carbon
Direct-acting agonists typically have a β-hydroxyl group, although dopamine does not. In addition to facilitating activation of adrenoceptors, this hydroxyl group may be important for storage of sympathomimetic amines in neural vesicles.
ORGAN SYSTEM EFFECTS OF SYMPATHOMIMETIC DRUGS
General outlines of the cellular actions of sympathomimetics are presented in Tables 6–3 and 9–3. Sympathomimetics have prominent cardiovascular effects because of widespread distribution of α and β adrenoceptors in the heart, blood vessels, and neural and hormonal systems involved in blood pressure regulation.
TABLE 9–3Distribution of adrenoceptor subtypes. ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 9–3 Distribution of adrenoceptor subtypes.
|Type ||Tissue ||Actions |
|α1 ||Most vascular smooth muscle (innervated) ||Contraction |
| ||Pupillary dilator muscle ||Contraction (dilates pupil) |
| ||Pilomotor smooth muscle ||Erects hair |
| ||Prostate ||Contraction |
| ||Heart ||Increases force of contraction |
|α2 ||Postsynaptic CNS neurons ||Probably multiple |
| ||Platelets ||Aggregation |
| ||Adrenergic and cholinergic nerve terminals ||Inhibits transmitter release |
| ||Some vascular smooth muscle ||Contraction |
| ||Fat cells ||Inhibits lipolysis |
|β1 ||Heart, juxtaglomerular cells ||Increases force and rate of contraction; increases renin release |
|β2 ||Respiratory, uterine, and vascular smooth muscle ||Promotes smooth muscle relaxation |
| ||Skeletal muscle ||Promotes potassium uptake |
| ||Human liver ||Activates glycogenolysis |
|β3 ||Bladder ||Relaxes detrusor muscle |
| ||Fat cells ||Activates lipolysis |
|D1 ||Smooth muscle ||Dilates renal blood vessels |
|D2 ||Nerve endings ||Modulates transmitter release |
The effects of sympathomimetic drugs on blood pressure can be explained on the basis of their effects on heart rate, myocardial function, peripheral vascular resistance, and venous return (see Figure 6–7 and Table 9–4). The endogenous catecholamines, norepinephrine and epinephrine, have complex cardiovascular effects because they activate both α and β receptors. It is easier to understand these actions by first describing the cardiovascular effect of sympathomimetics that are selective for a given adrenoreceptor.
TABLE 9–4Cardiovascular responses to sympathomimetic amines. ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 9–4 Cardiovascular responses to sympathomimetic amines.
| ||Phenylephrine ||Epinephrine ||lsoproterenol |
|Vascular resistance (tone) |
| Skin, mucous membranes (a) ||↑↑ ||↑↑ ||0 |
| Skeletal muscle (β2, α) ||↑ ||↓ or ↑ ||↓↓ |
| Renal (α, D1) ||↑ ||↑ ||↓ |
| Splanchnic (α, β) ||↑↑ ||↓ or ↑1 ||↓ |
| Total peripheral resistance ||↑↑↑ ||↓ or ↑1 ||↓↓ |
| Venous tone (α, β) ||↑ ||↑ ||↓ |
| Contractility (β1) ||0 or ↑ ||↑↑↑ ||↑↑↑ |
| Heart rate (predominantly β1) ||↓↓ (vagal reflex) ||↑ or ↓ ||↑↑↑ |
| Stroke volume ||0, ↓, ↑ ||↑ ||↑ |
| Cardiac output ||↓ ||↑ ||↑↑ |
|Blood pressure |
| Mean ||↑↑ ||↑ ||↓ |
| Diastolic ||↑↑ ||↓ or ↑1 ||↓↓ |
| Systolic ||↑↑ ||↑↑ ||0 or ↓ |
| Pulse pressure ||0 ||↑↑ ||↑↑ |
A. Effects of Alpha1-Receptor Activation
Alpha1 receptors are widely expressed in vascular beds, and their activation leads to arterial and venous vasoconstriction. Their direct effect on cardiac function is of relatively less importance. A relatively pure α agonist such as phenylephrine increases peripheral arterial resistance and decreases venous capacitance. The enhanced arterial resistance usually leads to a dose-dependent rise in blood pressure (Figure 9–6). In the presence of normal cardiovascular reflexes, the rise in blood pressure elicits a baroreceptor-mediated increase in vagal tone with slowing of the heart rate, which may be quite marked (Figure 9–7). However, cardiac output may not diminish in proportion to this reduction in rate, since increased venous return may increase stroke volume. Furthermore, direct α-adrenoceptor stimulation of the heart may have a modest positive inotropic action. It is important to note that any effect these agents have on blood pressure is counteracted by compensatory autonomic baroreflex mechanisms aimed at restoring homeostasis. The magnitude of the restraining effect is quite dramatic. If baroreflex function is removed by pretreatment with the ganglionic blocker trimethaphan, the pressor effect of phenylephrine is increased approximately 10-fold, and bradycardia is no longer observed (Figure 9–7), confirming that the decrease in heart rate associated with the increase in blood pressure induced by phenylephrine was reflex in nature rather than a direct effect of α1-receptor activation.
Effects of an α-selective (phenylephrine), β-selective (isoproterenol), and nonselective (epinephrine) sympathomimetic, given as an intravenous bolus injection to a dog. Reflexes are blunted but not eliminated in this anesthetized animal. BP, blood pressure; HR, heart rate.
Effects of ganglionic blockade on the response to phenylephrine (Phe) in a human subject. Left: The cardiovascular effect of the selective α agonist phenylephrine when given as an intravenous bolus to a subject with intact autonomic baroreflex function. Note that the increase in blood pressure (BP) is associated with a baroreflex-mediated compensatory decrease in heart rate (HR). Right: The response in the same subject after autonomic reflexes were abolished by the ganglionic blocker trimethaphan. Note that resting blood pressure is decreased and heart rate is increased by trimethaphan because of sympathetic and parasympathetic withdrawal (HR scale is different). In the absence of baroreflex buffering, approximately a 10-fold lower dose of phenylephrine is required to produce a similar increase in blood pressure. Note also the lack of compensatory decrease in heart rate.
Patients who have an impairment of autonomic function (due to pure autonomic failure as in the case study or to more common conditions such as diabetic autonomic neuropathy) exhibit this extreme hypersensitivity to most pressor and depressor stimuli, including medications. This is to a large extent due to failure of baroreflex buffering. Such patients may have exaggerated increases in heart rate or blood pressure when taking sympathomimetics with β- and α-adrenergic activity, respectively. This, however, can be used as an advantage in their treatment. The α agonist midodrine is commonly used to ameliorate orthostatic hypotension in these patients.
There are major differences in receptor types predominantly expressed in the various vascular beds (Table 9–4). The skin vessels have predominantly α receptors and constrict in response to epinephrine and norepinephrine, as do the splanchnic vessels. Vessels in skeletal muscle may constrict or dilate depending on whether α or β receptors are activated. The blood vessels of the nasal mucosa express α receptors, and local vasoconstriction induced by sympathomimetics explains their decongestant action (see Therapeutic Uses of Sympathomimetic Drugs).
B. Effects of Alpha2-Receptor Activation
Alpha2 adrenoceptors are present in the vasculature, and their activation leads to vasoconstriction. This effect, however, is observed only when α2 agonists are given locally, by rapid intravenous injection or in very high oral doses. When given systemically, these vascular effects are obscured by the central effects of α2 receptors, which lead to inhibition of sympathetic tone and reduced blood pressure. Hence, α2 agonists can be used as sympatholytics in the treatment of hypertension (see Chapter 11). In patients with pure autonomic failure, characterized by neural degeneration of postganglionic noradrenergic fibers, clonidine may increase blood pressure because the central sympatholytic effects of clonidine become irrelevant, whereas the peripheral vasoconstriction remains intact.
C. Effects of Beta-Receptor Activation
The cardiovascular effects of β-adrenoceptor activation are exemplified by the response to the nonselective β agonist isoproterenol, which activates both β1 and β2 receptors. Stimulation of β receptors in the heart increases cardiac output by increasing contractility and by direct activation of the sinus node to increase heart rate. Beta agonists also decrease peripheral resistance by activating β2 receptors, leading to vasodilation in certain vascular beds (Table 9–4). The net effect is to maintain or slightly increase systolic pressure and to lower diastolic pressure, so that mean blood pressure is decreased (Figure 9–6).
The cardiac effects of β agonists are determined largely by β1 receptors (although β2 and α receptors may also be involved, especially in heart failure). Beta-receptor activation results in increased calcium influx in cardiac cells. This has both electrical and mechanical consequences. Beta-activation in the sinoatrial node increases pacemaker activity and heart rate (positive chronotropic effect). Excessive stimulation of ventricular muscle and Purkinje cells can result in ventricular arrhythmias. Beta stimulation in the atrioventricular node increases conduction velocity (positive dromotropic effect) and decreases the refractory period. Beta activation also increases intrinsic myocardial contractility (positive inotropic effect) and accelerates relaxation. In the presence of normal autonomic reflex activity, the direct effects on heart rate may be masked by a reflex response to blood pressure changes (with sympathetic withdrawal and parasympathetic activation, which lower heart rate). These direct effects are easily demonstrated in the absence of reflexes evoked by changes in blood pressure, eg, in isolated myocardial preparations and in patients with ganglionic blockade. Physiologic stimulation of the heart by catecholamines tends to increase coronary blood flow. Expression of β3 adrenoreceptors has been detected in the human heart and may be upregulated in disease states; its relevance is under investigation.
D. Effects of Dopamine-Receptor Activation
Intravenous administration of dopamine promotes vasodilation of renal, splanchnic, coronary, cerebral, and perhaps other resistance vessels, via activation of D1 receptors. Activation of the D1 receptors in the renal vasculature may also induce natriuresis. The renal effects of dopamine have been used clinically to improve perfusion to the kidney in situations of oliguria (abnormally low urinary output). The activation of presynaptic D2 receptors suppresses norepinephrine release, but it is unclear if this contributes to cardiovascular effects of dopamine. In addition, dopamine activates β1 receptors in the heart. At low doses, peripheral resistance may decrease. At higher rates of infusion, dopamine activates vascular α receptors, leading to vasoconstriction, including in the renal vascular bed. Consequently, high rates of infusion of dopamine may mimic the actions of epinephrine.
Noncardiac Effects of Sympathomimetics
Adrenoceptors are distributed in virtually all organ systems. This section focuses on the activation of adrenoceptors that are responsible for the therapeutic effects of sympathomimetics or that explain their adverse effects. A more detailed description of the therapeutic use of sympathomimetics is given later in this chapter.
Activation of β2 receptors in bronchial smooth muscle leads to bronchodilation, and β2 agonists are important in the treatment of asthma (see Chapter 20 and Table 9–3).
In the eye, the radial pupillary dilator muscle of the iris contains α receptors; activation by drugs such as phenylephrine causes mydriasis (see Figure 6–9). Alpha2 agonists increase the outflow of aqueous humor from the eye and can be used clinically to reduce intraocular pressure. In contrast, β agonists have little effect, but β antagonists decrease the production of aqueous humor and are used in the treatment of glaucoma (see Chapter 10).
In genitourinary organs, the bladder base, urethral sphincter, and prostate contain α1A receptors that mediate contraction and therefore promote urinary continence. This effect explains why urinary retention is a potential adverse effect of administration of the α1 agonist midodrine, and why α1A antagonists are used in the management of symptoms of urinary flow obstruction.
Alpha-receptor activation in the ductus deferens, seminal vesicles, and prostate plays a role in normal ejaculation and in the detumescence of erectile tissue that normally follows ejaculation.
The salivary glands contain adrenoceptors that regulate the secretion of amylase and water. However, centrally acting sympathomimetic drugs, eg, clonidine, produce symptoms of dry mouth. It is likely that CNS effects are responsible for this side effect, although peripheral effects may contribute.
The apocrine sweat glands, located on the palms of the hands and a few other areas, are nonthermoregulatory glands that respond to psychological stress and adrenoceptor stimulation with increased sweat production. (The diffusely distributed thermoregulatory eccrine sweat glands are regulated by sympathetic cholinergic postganglionic nerves that activate muscarinic cholinergic receptors; see Chapter 6.)
Sympathomimetic drugs have important effects on intermediary metabolism. Activation of β adrenoceptors in fat cells leads to increased lipolysis with enhanced release of free fatty acids and glycerol into the blood. Beta3 adrenoceptors play a role in mediating this response in animals, but their role in humans is not clear. Experimentally, the β3 agonist mirabegron stimulates brown adipose tissue in humans. The potential importance of this finding is that brown fat cells (“good fat”) are thermogenic and thus have a positive metabolic function. Brown adipose tissue is present in neonates, but only remnant amounts are normally found in adult humans. Therefore, it is not clear whether β3 agonists can be used therapeutically for the treatment of obesity. Human fat cells also contain α2 receptors that inhibit lipolysis by decreasing intracellular cAMP. Sympathomimetic drugs enhance glycogenolysis in the liver, which leads to increased glucose release into the circulation. In the human liver, the effects of catecholamines are probably mediated mainly by β receptors, although α1 receptors may also play a role. Catecholamines in high concentration may also cause metabolic acidosis. Activation of β2 adrenoceptors by endogenous epinephrine or by sympathomimetic drugs promotes the uptake of potassium into cells, leading to a fall in extracellular potassium. This may result in a fall in the plasma potassium concentration during stress or protect against a rise in plasma potassium during exercise. Blockade of these receptors may accentuate the rise in plasma potassium that occurs during exercise. On the other hand, epinephrine has been used to treat hyperkalemia in certain conditions, but alternatives are more commonly used. Beta receptors and α2 receptors that are expressed in pancreatic islets tend to increase and decrease insulin secretion, respectively, although the major regulator of insulin release is the plasma concentration of glucose.
Catecholamines are important endogenous regulators of hormone secretion from a number of glands. As mentioned above, insulin secretion is stimulated by β receptors and inhibited by α2 receptors. Similarly, renin secretion is stimulated by β1 and inhibited by α2 receptors; indeed, β-receptor antagonist drugs may lower blood pressure in patients with hypertension at least in part by lowering plasma renin. Adrenoceptors also modulate the secretion of parathyroid hormone, calcitonin, thyroxine, and gastrin; however, the physiologic significance of these control mechanisms is probably limited. In high concentrations, epinephrine and related agents cause leukocytosis, in part by promoting demargination of sequestered white blood cells back into the general circulation.
The action of sympathomimetics on the CNS varies dramatically, depending on their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier. The catecholamines are almost completely excluded by this barrier, and subjective CNS effects are noted only at the highest rates of infusion. These effects have been described as ranging from “nervousness” to “an adrenaline rush” or “a feeling of impending disaster.” Furthermore, peripheral effects of β-adrenoceptor agonists such as tachycardia and tremor are similar to the somatic manifestations of anxiety. In contrast, noncatecholamines with indirect actions, such as amphetamines, which readily enter the CNS from the circulation, produce qualitatively very different effects on the nervous system. These actions vary from mild alerting, with improved attention to boring tasks; through elevation of mood, insomnia, euphoria, and anorexia; to full-blown psychotic behavior. These effects are not readily assigned to either α- or β-mediated actions and may represent enhancement of dopamine-mediated processes or other effects of these drugs in the CNS.
SPECIFIC SYMPATHOMIMETIC DRUGS
Epinephrine (adrenaline) is an agonist at both α and β receptors. It is therefore a very potent vasoconstrictor and cardiac stimulant. The rise in systolic blood pressure that occurs after epinephrine release or administration is caused by its positive inotropic and chronotropic actions on the heart (predominantly β1 receptors) and the vasoconstriction induced in many vascular beds (α receptors). Epinephrine also activates β2 receptors in some vessels (eg, skeletal muscle blood vessels), leading to their dilation. Consequently, total peripheral resistance may actually fall, explaining the fall in diastolic pressure that is sometimes seen with epinephrine injection (Figure 9–6; Table 9–4). Activation of β2 receptors in skeletal muscle contributes to increased blood flow during exercise. Under physiologic conditions, epinephrine functions largely as a hormone; it is released from the adrenal medulla and carried in the blood to distant sites of action.
Norepinephrine (levarterenol, noradrenaline) is an agonist at both α1 and α2 receptors. Norepinephrine also activates β1 receptors with similar potency as epinephrine, but has relatively little effect on β2 receptors. Consequently, norepinephrine increases peripheral resistance and both diastolic and systolic blood pressure. Compensatory baroreflex activation tends to overcome the direct positive chronotropic effects of norepinephrine; however, the positive inotropic effects on the heart are maintained.
Dopamine is the immediate precursor in the synthesis of norepinephrine (see Figure 6–5). Its cardiovascular effects were described above. Endogenous dopamine may have more important effects in regulating sodium excretion and renal function. It is an important neurotransmitter in the CNS and is involved in the reward stimulus relevant to addiction. Its deficiency in the basal ganglia leads to Parkinson’s disease, which is treated with its precursor levodopa. Dopamine receptors are also targets for antipsychotic drugs.
Phenylephrine was discussed previously when describing the actions of a relatively pure α1 agonist (Table 9–2). Because it is not a catechol derivative (Figure 9–5), it is not inactivated by COMT and has a longer duration of action than the catecholamines. It is an effective mydriatic and decongestant and can be used to raise the blood pressure (Figure 9–6).
Midodrine is a prodrug that is enzymatically hydrolyzed to desglymidodrine, a selective α1-receptor agonist. The peak concentration of desglymidodrine is achieved about 1 hour after midodrine is administered orally. The primary indication for midodrine is the treatment of orthostatic hypotension, typically due to impaired autonomic nervous system function. Midodrine increases upright blood pressure and improves orthostatic tolerance, but it may cause hypertension when the subject is supine.
Alpha2-selective agonists decrease blood pressure through actions in the CNS that reduce sympathetic tone (“sympatholytics”) even though direct application to a blood vessel may cause vasoconstriction. Such drugs (eg, clonidine, methyldopa, guanfacine, guanabenz) are useful in the treatment of hypertension (and some other conditions) and are discussed in Chapter 11. Sedation is a recognized side effect of these drugs, and newer α2 agonists (with activity also at imidazoline receptors) with fewer CNS side effects are available outside the USA for the treatment of hypertension (moxonidine, rilmenidine). On the other hand, the primary indication of dexmedetomidine is for sedation in an intensive care setting or before anesthesia. It also reduces the requirements for opioids in pain control. Finally, tizanidine is used as a centrally acting muscle relaxant.
Oxymetazoline is a direct-acting α agonist used as a topical decongestant because of its ability to promote constriction of the vessels in the nasal mucosa and conjunctiva. When taken in large doses, oxymetazoline may cause hypotension, presumably because of a central clonidine-like effect (see Chapter 11). Oxymetazoline has significant affinity for α2A receptors.
Isoproterenol (isoprenaline) is a very potent β-receptor agonist and has little effect on α receptors. The drug has positive chronotropic and inotropic actions; because isoproterenol activates β receptors almost exclusively, it is a potent vasodilator. These actions lead to a marked increase in cardiac output associated with a fall in diastolic and mean arterial pressure and a lesser decrease or a slight increase in systolic pressure (Table 9–4; Figure 9–6).
Beta subtype-selective agonists are very important because the separation of β1 and β2 effects (Table 9–2), although incomplete, is sufficient to reduce adverse effects in several clinical applications.
Beta1-selective agents (Figure 9–8) increase cardiac output with less reflex tachycardia than nonselective β agonists such as isoproterenol, because they are less effective in activating vasodilator β2 receptors. Dobutamine was initially considered a relatively β1-selective agonist, but its actions are more complex. Its chemical structure resembles dopamine, but its actions are mediated mostly by activation of α and β receptors. Clinical formulations of dobutamine are a racemic mixture of (–) and (+) isomers, each with contrasting activity at α1 and α2 receptors. The (+) isomer is a potent β1 agonist and an α1-receptor antagonist. The (–) isomer is a potent α1 agonist, which is capable of causing significant vasoconstriction when given alone. The resultant cardiovascular effects of dobutamine reflect this complex pharmacology. Dobutamine has a positive inotropic action caused by the isomer with predominantly β-receptor activity. It has relatively greater inotropic than chronotropic effect compared with isoproterenol. Activation of α1 receptors probably explains why peripheral resistance does not decrease significantly.
Examples of β1- and β2-selective agonists.
Beta2-selective agents (eg, Figure 9–8) have achieved an important place in the treatment of asthma and are discussed in Chapter 20).
Ephedrine occurs in various plants and has been used in China for over 2000 years; it was introduced into Western medicine in 1924 as the first orally active sympathomimetic drug. It is found in ma huang, a popular herbal medication (see Chapter 64). Ma huang contains multiple ephedrine-like alkaloids in addition to ephedrine. Because ephedrine is a noncatechol phenylisopropylamine (Figure 9–5), it has high bioavailability and a relatively long duration of action—hours rather than minutes. As with many other phenylisopropylamines, a significant fraction of the drug is excreted unchanged in the urine. Since it is a weak base, its excretion can be accelerated by acidification of the urine.
Ephedrine has not been extensively studied in humans despite its long history of use. Its ability to activate β receptors probably accounted for its earlier use in asthma. Because it gains access to the CNS, it is a mild stimulant. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the sale of ephedra-containing dietary supplements because of safety concerns. Pseudoephedrine, one of four ephedrine enantiomers, has been available over the counter as a component of many decongestant mixtures. However, the use of pseudoephedrine as a precursor in the illicit manufacture of methamphetamine has led to restrictions on its sale.
As noted previously, indirect-acting sympathomimetics can have one of two different mechanisms (Figure 9–3). First, they may enter the sympathetic nerve ending and displace stored catecholamine transmitter. Such drugs have been called amphetamine-like or “displacers.” Second, they may inhibit the reuptake of released transmitter by interfering with the action of the norepinephrine transporter, NET.
Amphetamine is a racemic mixture of phenylisopropylamine (Figure 9–5) that is important chiefly because of its use and misuse as a CNS stimulant (see Chapter 32). Pharmacokinetically, it is similar to ephedrine; however, amphetamine enters the CNS even more readily, where it has marked stimulant effects on mood and alertness and a depressant effect on appetite. Its D-isomer is more potent than the L-isomer. Amphetamine’s actions are mediated through the release of norepinephrine and, to some extent, dopamine.
Methamphetamine (N-methylamphetamine) is very similar to amphetamine, with an even higher ratio of central to peripheral actions. Methylphenidate is an amphetamine variant whose major pharmacologic effects and abuse potential are similar to those of amphetamine. Methylphenidate may be effective in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (see Therapeutic Uses of Sympathomimetic Drugs). Modafinil is a psychostimulant that differs from amphetamine in structure, neurochemical profile, and behavioral effects. Its mechanism of action is not fully known. It inhibits both norepinephrine and dopamine transporters, and it increases synaptic concentrations not only of norepinephrine and dopamine, but also of serotonin and glutamate, while decreasing γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels. It is used primarily to improve wakefulness in narcolepsy and some other conditions. It is often associated with increases in blood pressure and heart rate, although these are usually mild (see Therapeutic Uses of Sympathomimetic Drugs).
Tyramine (see Figure 6–5) is a normal byproduct of tyrosine metabolism in the body. It is an indirect sympathomimetic, inducing the release of catecholamines from noradrenergic neurons. Tyramine can be produced in high concentrations in protein-rich foods by decarboxylation of tyrosine during fermentation (Table 9–5) but is normally inactive when taken orally because it is readily metabolized by MAO in the liver (ie, low bioavailability because of a very high first-pass effect). In patients treated with MAO inhibitors—particularly inhibitors of the MAO-A isoform—the sympathomimetic effect of tyramine may be greatly intensified, leading to marked increases in blood pressure. This occurs because of increased bioavailability of tyramine and increased neuronal stores of catecholamines. Patients taking MAO inhibitors should avoid tyramine-containing foods (aged cheese, cured meats, and pickled food). There are differences in the effects of various MAO inhibitors on tyramine bioavailability, and isoform-specific or reversible enzyme antagonists may be safer (see Chapters 28 and 30).
TABLE 9–5Foods reputed to have a high content of tyramine or other sympathomimetic agents. ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 9–5 Foods reputed to have a high content of tyramine or other sympathomimetic agents.
|Food ||Tyramine Content of an Average Serving |
|Beer ||4–45 mg |
|Broad beans, fava beans ||Negligible (but contains dopamine) |
|Cheese, natural or aged ||Nil to 130 mg (cheddar, Gruyère, and Stilton especially high) |
|Chicken liver ||Nil to 9 mg |
|Chocolate ||Negligible (but contains phenylethylamine) |
|Sausage, fermented (eg, salami, pepperoni, summer sausage) ||Nil to 74 mg |
|Smoked or pickled fish (eg, pickled herring) ||Nil to 198 mg |
|Wine (red) ||Nil to 3 mg |
|Yeast (eg, dietary brewer’s yeast supplements) ||2–68 mg |
B. Catecholamine Reuptake Inhibitors
Many inhibitors of the amine transporters for norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin are used clinically. Although specificity is not absolute, some are highly selective for one of the transporters. Many antidepressants, particularly the older tricyclic antidepressants, can inhibit norepinephrine and serotonin reuptake to different degrees. Some antidepressants of this class, particularly imipramine, can induce orthostatic hypotension presumably by their clonidine-like effect or by blocking α1 receptors, but the mechanism remains unclear.
Atomoxetine is a selective inhibitor of the norepinephrine reuptake transporter. Its actions, therefore, are mediated by potentiation of norepinephrine levels in noradrenergic synapses. It is used in the treatment of attention deficit disorders (see below). Reboxetine (investigational in the USA) has similar characteristics to atomoxetine but is used mainly for major depression disorder. Because reuptake inhibitors potentiate norepinephrine actions, there is concern about their cardiovascular safety. Atomoxetine has surprisingly little cardiovascular effect because it has a clonidine-like effect in the CNS to decrease sympathetic outflow while at the same time potentiating the effects of norepinephrine in the periphery. However, it may increase blood pressure in some patients. Norepinephrine reuptake is particularly important in the heart, especially during sympathetic stimulation, and this explains why atomoxetine and other norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors can cause orthostatic tachycardia. Pharmacoepidemiologic studies have not found significant adverse cardiovascular events associated with the use of norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors. However, sibutramine, a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor used as an appetite suppressant, was taken off the market because it was associated with a small increase in cardiovascular events, including strokes, in patients with a history of cardiovascular disease. Duloxetine is a widely used antidepressant with balanced serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitory effects (see Chapter 30). Increased cardiovascular risk has not been reported with duloxetine. Duloxetine and milnacipran, another serotonin and norepinephrine transporter blocker, are approved for the treatment of pain in fibromyalgia (see Chapter 30).
Cocaine is a local anesthetic with a peripheral sympathomimetic action that results from inhibition of transmitter reuptake at noradrenergic synapses (Figure 9–3). It readily enters the CNS and produces an amphetamine-like psychological effect that is shorter lasting and more intense than amphetamine. The major action of cocaine in the CNS is to inhibit dopamine reuptake into neurons in the “pleasure centers” of the brain. These properties and the fact that a rapid onset of action can be obtained when smoked, snorted, or injected have made cocaine a heavily abused drug (see Chapter 32). It is interesting that dopamine-transporter knockout mice still self-administer cocaine, suggesting that cocaine may have additional pharmacologic targets.
Levodopa, which is converted to dopamine in the body, and dopamine agonists with central actions are of considerable value in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and prolactinemia. These agents are discussed in Chapters 28 and 37.
Fenoldopam is a D1-receptor agonist that selectively leads to peripheral vasodilation in some vascular beds. The primary indication for fenoldopam is in the intravenous treatment of severe hypertension (see Chapter 11).
THERAPEUTIC USES OF SYMPATHOMIMETIC DRUGS
In keeping with the critical role of the sympathetic nervous system in the control of blood pressure, a major area of application of the sympathomimetics is in cardiovascular conditions.
A. Treatment of Acute Hypotension
Acute hypotension may occur in a variety of settings such as severe hemorrhage, decreased blood volume, cardiac arrhythmias, neurologic disease or accidents, adverse reactions or overdose of medications such as antihypertensive drugs, and infection. If cerebral, renal, and cardiac perfusion is maintained, hypotension itself does not usually require vigorous direct treatment. Rather, placing the patient in the recumbent position and ensuring adequate fluid volume while the primary problem is determined and treated is usually the correct course of action. The use of sympathomimetic drugs merely to elevate a blood pressure that is not an immediate threat to the patient may increase morbidity. However, sympathomimetics may be required in cases of sustained hypotension with evidence of tissue hypoperfusion.
Shock is a complex acute cardiovascular syndrome that results in a critical reduction in perfusion of vital tissues and a wide range of systemic effects. Shock is usually associated with hypotension, an altered mental state, oliguria, and metabolic acidosis. If untreated, shock usually progresses to a refractory deteriorating state and death. The three major forms of shock are septic, cardiogenic, and hypovolemic. Volume replacement and treatment of the underlying disease are the mainstays of the treatment of shock. If vasopressors are needed, adrenergic agonists with both α and β activity are preferred. Pure β-adrenergic stimulation increases blood flow but also increases the risk of myocardial ischemia. Pure α-adrenergic stimulation increases vascular tone and blood pressure but can also decrease cardiac output and impair tissue blood flow. Norepinephrine provides an acceptable balance and is considered the vasopressor of first choice: it has predominantly α-adrenergic properties, but its modest β-adrenergic effects help to maintain cardiac output. Administration generally results in a clinically significant increase in mean arterial pressure, with little change in heart rate or cardiac output. Dopamine has no advantage over norepinephrine because it is associated with a higher incidence of arrhythmias and mortality. However, dobutamine is arguably the inotropic agent of choice when increased cardiac output is needed.
B. Chronic Orthostatic Hypotension
On standing, gravitational forces induce venous pooling, resulting in decreased venous return. Normally, a decrease in blood pressure is prevented by reflex sympathetic activation with increased heart rate, and peripheral arterial and venous vasoconstriction. Impairment of autonomic reflexes that regulate blood pressure can lead to chronic orthostatic hypotension. This is more often due to medications that can interfere with autonomic function (eg, imipramine and other tricyclic antidepressants, α blockers for the treatment of urinary retention, and diuretics), diabetes, and other diseases causing peripheral autonomic neuropathies, and less commonly, primary degenerative disorders of the autonomic nervous system, as in the case study described at the beginning of the chapter.
Increasing peripheral resistance is one of the strategies to treat chronic orthostatic hypotension, and drugs activating α receptors can be used for this purpose. Midodrine, an orally active α1 agonist, is frequently used for this indication. Other sympathomimetics, such as oral ephedrine or phenylephrine, can be tried. A novel approach to treat orthostatic hypotension is droxidopa, a synthetic (L-threo-dihydrophenylserine, L-DOPS) molecule that has been approved by the FDA to treat neurogenic orthostatic hypotension. It is a prodrug that is converted to norepinephrine by the aromatic L-amino acid decarboxylase (dopa-decarboxylase), the enzyme that converts L-dopa to dopamine.
Epinephrine is used during resuscitation from cardiac arrest. Current evidence indicates that it improves the chance of returning to spontaneous circulation, but it is less clear that it improves survival or long-term neurologic outcomes and this is an area of active investigation.
Dobutamine is used as a pharmacologic cardiac stress test. Dobutamine augments myocardial contractility and promotes coronary and systemic vasodilation. These actions lead to increased heart rate and increased myocardial work and can reveal areas of ischemia in the myocardium that are detected by echocardiogram or nuclear medicine techniques. Dobutamine can thus be used in patients unable to exercise during the stress test.
D. Inducing Local Vasoconstriction
Reduction of local or regional blood flow is desirable for achieving hemostasis during surgery, for reducing diffusion of local anesthetics away from the site of administration, and for reducing mucous membrane congestion. In each instance, α-receptor activation is desired, and the choice of agent depends on the maximal efficacy required, the desired duration of action, and the route of administration.
Effective pharmacologic hemostasis is often necessary for facial, oral, and nasopharyngeal surgery. Epinephrine is usually applied topically in nasal packs (for epistaxis) or in a gingival string (for gingivectomy). Cocaine is still sometimes used for nasopharyngeal surgery because it combines a hemostatic effect with local anesthesia.
Combining α agonists with some local anesthetics greatly prolongs their duration of action; the total dose of local anesthetic (and the probability of systemic toxicity) can therefore be reduced. Epinephrine, 1:200,000, is the favored agent for this application. Systemic effects on the heart and peripheral vasculature may occur even with local drug administration but are usually minimal. Use of epinephrine with local anesthesia of acral vascular beds (digits, nose, and ears) has not been advised because of fear of ischemic necrosis. Recent studies suggest that it can be used (with caution) for this indication.
Alpha agonists can be used topically as mucous membrane decongestants to reduce the discomfort of allergic rhinitis or the common cold by decreasing the volume of the nasal mucosa. These effects are probably mediated by α1 receptors. Unfortunately, rebound hyperemia may follow the use of these agents, and repeated topical use of high drug concentrations may result in ischemic changes in the mucous membranes, probably as a result of vasoconstriction of nutrient arteries. Constriction of the latter vessels may involve activation of α2 receptors, and phenylephrine or the longer-acting oxymetazoline are often used in over-the-counter nasal decongestants. A longer duration of action—at the cost of much lower local concentrations and greater potential for cardiac and CNS effects—can be achieved by the oral administration of agents such as ephedrine or one of its isomers, pseudoephedrine.
One of the most important uses of sympathomimetic drugs is in the therapy of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD; discussed in more detail in Chapter 20). Beta2-selective drugs (albuterol, metaproterenol, terbutaline) are used for this purpose to reduce the adverse effects that would be associated with β1 stimulation. Short-acting preparations can be used only transiently for acute treatment of asthma symptoms. For chronic asthma treatment in adults, long-acting β2 agonists should only be used in combination with steroids because their use in monotherapy has been associated with increased mortality. Long-acting β2 agonists are also used in patients with COPD. Indacaterol, olodaterol, and vilanterol, new ultralong β2 agonists, have been approved by the FDA for once-a-day use in COPD. Nonselective drugs are now rarely used because they are likely to have more adverse effects than the selective drugs.
Anaphylactic shock and related immediate (type I) IgE-mediated reactions affect both the respiratory and the cardiovascular systems. The syndrome of bronchospasm, mucous membrane congestion, angioedema, and severe hypotension usually responds rapidly to the parenteral administration of epinephrine, 0.3–0.5 mg (0.3–0.5 mL of a 1:1000 epinephrine solution). Intramuscular injection may be the preferred route of administration, since skin blood flow (and hence systemic drug absorption from subcutaneous injection) is unpredictable in hypotensive patients. In some patients with impaired cardiovascular function, intravenous injection of epinephrine may be required. The use of epinephrine for anaphylaxis precedes the era of controlled clinical trials, but extensive experimental and clinical experience supports its use as the agent of choice. Epinephrine activates α, β1, and β2 receptors, all of which may be important in reversing the pathophysiologic processes underlying anaphylaxis. It is recommended that patients at risk for anaphylaxis carry epinephrine in an autoinjector (EpiPen, Auvi-Q) for self-administration. Recent price-gouging increases in the cost of the EpiPen in the USA have raised fears that high costs will limit access to this drug.
Phenylephrine is an effective mydriatic agent frequently used to facilitate examination of the retina. It is also a useful decongestant for minor allergic hyperemia and itching of the conjunctival membranes. Sympathomimetics administered as ophthalmic drops are also useful in localizing the lesion in Horner’s syndrome. (See Box: An Application of Basic Pharmacology to a Clinical Problem.)
An Application of Basic Pharmacology to a Clinical Problem
Horner’s syndrome is a condition—usually unilateral—that results from interruption of the sympathetic nerves to the face. The effects include vasodilation, ptosis, miosis, and loss of sweating on the affected side. The syndrome can be caused by either a preganglionic or a postganglionic lesion, and knowledge of the location of the lesion (preganglionic or postganglionic) helps determine the optimal therapy.
A localized lesion in a nerve causes degeneration of the distal portion of that fiber and loss of transmitter contents from the degenerated nerve ending—without affecting neurons innervated by the fiber. Therefore, a preganglionic lesion leaves the postganglionic adrenergic neuron intact, whereas a postganglionic lesion results in degeneration of the adrenergic nerve endings and loss of stored catecholamines from them. Because indirectly acting sympathomimetics require normal stores of catecholamines, such drugs can be used to test for the presence of normal adrenergic nerve endings. The iris, because it is easily visible and responsive to topical sympathomimetics, is a convenient assay tissue in the patient.
If the lesion of Horner’s syndrome is postganglionic, indirectly acting sympathomimetics (eg, cocaine, hydroxyamphetamine) will not dilate the abnormally constricted pupil because catecholamines have been lost from the nerve endings in the iris. In contrast, the pupil dilates in response to phenylephrine, which acts directly on the α receptors on the smooth muscle of the iris. A patient with a preganglionic lesion, on the other hand, shows a normal response to both drugs, since the postganglionic fibers and their catecholamine stores remain intact in this situation.
Glaucoma responds to a variety of sympathomimetic and sympathoplegic drugs. (See Box: The Treatment of Glaucoma, in Chapter 10.) Both α2-selective agonists (apraclonidine and brimonidine) and β-blocking agents (timolol and others) are common topical therapies for glaucoma.
As noted above, β2-selective agents (eg, terbutaline) relax the pregnant uterus. In the past, these agents were used to suppress premature labor. However, meta-analysis of older trials and a randomized study suggest that β-agonist therapy has no significant benefit on perinatal infant mortality and may increase maternal morbidity.
Central Nervous System Applications
The amphetamines have a mood-elevating (euphoriant) effect; this effect is the basis for the widespread abuse of this drug group (see Chapter 32). The amphetamines also have an alerting, sleep-deferring action that is manifested by improved attention to repetitive tasks and by acceleration and desynchronization of the electroencephalogram. A therapeutic application of this effect is in the treatment of narcolepsy. Modafinil, a new amphetamine substitute, is approved for use in narcolepsy and is claimed to have fewer disadvantages (excessive mood changes, insomnia, and abuse potential) than amphetamine in this condition. Amphetamines have appetite-suppressing effects, but there is no evidence that long-term improvement in weight control can be achieved with amphetamines alone, especially when administered for a relatively short course. A final application of the CNS-active sympathomimetics is in the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a behavioral syndrome consisting of short attention span, hyperkinetic physical behavior, and learning problems. Some patients with this syndrome respond well to low doses of methylphenidate and related agents. Extended-release formulations of methylphenidate may simplify dosing regimens and increase adherence to therapy, especially in school-age children. Slow or continuous-release preparations of the α2 agonists clonidine and guanfacine are also effective in children with ADHD. The norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor atomoxetine is sometimes used in ADHD. Clinical trials suggest that modafinil may also be useful in ADHD, but because the safety profile in children has not been defined, it has not gained approval by the FDA for this indication.
Additional Therapeutic Uses
Although the primary use of the α2 agonist clonidine is in the treatment of hypertension (see Chapter 11), the drug has been found to have efficacy in the treatment of diarrhea in diabetics with autonomic neuropathy, perhaps because of its ability to enhance salt and water absorption from the intestine. In addition, clonidine has efficacy in diminishing craving for narcotics and alcohol during withdrawal and may facilitate cessation of cigarette smoking. Clonidine has also been used to diminish menopausal hot flushes and is being used experimentally to reduce hemodynamic instability during general anesthesia. Dexmedetomidine is an α2 agonist used for sedation under intensive care circumstances and during anesthesia (see Chapter 25). It blunts the sympathetic response to surgery, which may be beneficial in some situations. It lowers opioid requirements for pain control and does not depress ventilation. Clonidine is also sometimes used as a premedication before anesthesia. Tizanidine is an α2 agonist closely related to clonidine that is used as a “central muscle relaxant” (see Chapter 27), but many physicians are not aware of its cardiovascular actions, which may lead to unanticipated adverse effects.
SUMMARY Sympathomimetic Drugs
|Subclass, Drug ||Mechanism of Action ||Effects ||Clinical Applications ||Pharmacokinetics, Toxicities, Interactions |
|α1 AGONISTS |
| • Midodrine ||Activates phospholipase C, resulting in increased intracellular calcium and vasoconstriction ||Vascular smooth muscle contraction increasing blood pressure (BP) ||Orthostatic hypotension ||Oral • prodrug converted to active drug with a 1-h peak effect • Toxicity: Supine hypertension, piloerection (goose bumps), and urinary retention |
|• Phenylephrine: Can be used IV for short-term maintenance of BP in acute hypotension and intranasally to produce local vasoconstriction as a decongestant |
|α2 AGONISTS |
| • Clonidine ||Inhibits adenylyl cyclase and interacts with other intracellular pathways ||Vasoconstriction is masked by central sympatholytic effect, which lowers BP ||Hypertension ||Oral • transdermal • peak effect 1–3 h • t1/2 of oral drug ~12 h • produces dry mouth and sedation |
• α-Methyldopa, guanfacine, and guanabenz: Also used as central sympatholytics
• Dexmedetomidine: Prominent sedative effects and used in anesthesia
• Tizanidine: Used as a muscle relaxant
• Apraclonidine and brimonidine: Used topically in glaucoma to reduce intraocular pressure
|β1 AGONISTS |
| • Dobutamine1 ||Activates adenylyl cyclase, increasing myocardial contractility ||Positive inotropic effect ||Cardiogenic shock, acute heart failure ||IV • requires dose titration to desired effect |
|β2 AGONISTS |
| • Albuterol ||Activates adenylyl cyclase ||Bronchial smooth muscle dilation ||Asthma ||Inhalation • duration 4–6 h • Toxicity: Tremor, tachycardia |
|• See other β2 agonists in Chapter 20 |
|β3 AGONISTS |
| • Mirabegron ||Activates adenylyl cyclase ||Reduces bladder tone ||Urinary urgency ||Oral • duration 50 h • Toxicity: Possible hypertension |
|DOPAMINE AGONISTS |
|D1 Agonists |
| • Fenoldopam ||Activates adenylyl cyclase ||Vascular smooth muscle relaxation ||Hypertensive emergency ||Requires dose titration to desired effect |
|D2 Agonists |
| • Bromocriptine ||Inhibits adenylyl cyclase and interacts with other intracellular pathways ||Mimics dopamine actions in the CNS ||Parkinson’s disease, prolactinemia ||Oral • Toxicity: Nausea, headache, orthostatic hypotension |
|• See other D2 agonists in Chapters 28 and 37 |
|GENERIC NAME ||AVAILABLE AS |
|Amphetamine, racemic mixture ||Generic |
|1:1:1:1 mixtures of amphetamine sulfate, amphetamine aspartate, dextroamphetamine sulfate, and dextroamphetamine saccharate ||Adderall |
|Apraclonidine ||Iopidine |
|Armodafinil ||Nuvigil |
|Brimonidine ||Alphagan |
|Dexmedetomidine ||Precedex |
|Dexmethylphenidate ||Focalin |
|Dextroamphetamine ||Generic, Dexedrine |
|Dobutamine ||Generic, Dobutrex |
|Dopamine ||Generic, Intropin |
|Droxidopa ||Northera |
|Ephedrine ||Generic |
|Epinephrine ||Generic, Adrenalin Chloride, Primatene Mist, Bronkaid Mist, EpiPen, Auvi-Q |
|Fenoldopam ||Corlopam |
|Hydroxyamphetamine ||Paremyd (includes 0.25% tropicamide) |
|Isoproterenol ||Generic, Isuprel |
|Metaraminol ||Aramine |
|Methamphetamine ||Desoxyn |
|Methylphenidate ||Generic, Ritalin, Ritalin-SR |
|Midodrine ||ProAmatine |
|Mirabegron ||Myrbetriq |
|Modafinil ||Provigil |
|Naphazoline ||Generic, Privine |
|Norepinephrine ||Generic, Levophed |
|Olodaterol ||Striverdi respimat |
|Oxymetazoline ||Generic, Afrin, Neo-Synephrine 12 Hour, Visine LR |
|Phenylephrine ||Generic, Neo-Synephrine |
|Pseudoephedrine ||Generic, Sudafed |
|Tetrahydrozoline ||Generic, Visine |
|Tizanidine ||Zanaflex |
|Xylometazoline ||Generic, Otrivin |