Serotonin () or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) is a monoamine neurotransmitter. It has a popular image as a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness, though its actual biological function is complex and multifaceted, modulating cognition, reward, learning, memory, and numerous physiological processes.
Biochemically, the indoleamine molecule derives from the amino acid tryptophan, via the (rate-limiting) hydroxylation of the 5 position on the ring (forming the intermediate 5-hydroxytryptophan), and then decarboxylation to produce serotonin. Serotonin is primarily found in the enteric nervous system located in the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract). However, it is also produced in the central nervous system (CNS), specifically in the Raphe nuclei located in the brainstem. Additionally, serotonin is stored in blood platelets and is released during agitation and vasoconstriction, where it then acts as an agonist to other platelets.
Approximately 90% of the human body's total serotonin is located in the enterochromaffin cells in the GI tract, where it regulates intestinal movements. The serotonin is secreted luminally and basolaterally, which leads to increased serotonin uptake by circulating platelets and activation after stimulation, which gives increased stimulation of myenteric neurons and gastrointestinal motility. The remainder is synthesized in serotonergic neurons of the CNS, where it has various functions. These include the regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep. Serotonin also has some cognitive functions, including memory and learning. Modulation of serotonin at synapses is thought to be a major action of several classes of pharmacological antidepressants.
Serotonin secreted from the enterochromaffin cells eventually finds its way out of tissues into the blood. There, it is actively taken up by blood platelets, which store it. When the platelets bind to a clot, they release serotonin, where it can serve as a vasoconstrictor or a vasodilator while regulating hemostasis and blood clotting. In high concentrations, serotonin acts as a vasoconstrictor by contracting endothelial smooth muscle directly or by potentiating the effects of other vasoconstrictors (e.g. angiotensin II, norepinephrine). The vasoconstrictive property is mostly seen in pathologic states affecting the endothelium - such as atherosclerosis or chronic hypertension. In physiologic states, vasodilation occurs through the serotonin mediated release of nitric oxide from endothelial cells. Additionally, it inhibits the release of norepinephrine from adrenergic nerves. Serotonin is also a growth factor for some types of cells, which may give it a role in wound healing. There are various serotonin receptors.
Serotonin is metabolized mainly to 5-HIAA, chiefly by the liver. Metabolism involves first oxidation by monoamine oxidase to the corresponding aldehyde. There follows oxidation by aldehyde dehydrogenase to 5-HIAA, the indole acetic-acid derivative. The latter is then excreted by the kidneys.
Besides mammals, serotonin is found in all bilateral animals including worms and insects, as well as in fungi and in plants. Serotonin's presence in insect venoms and plant spines serves to cause pain, which is a side-effect of serotonin injection. Serotonin is produced by pathogenic amoebae, and its effect in the human gut is diarrhea. Its widespread presence in many seeds and fruits may serve to stimulate the digestive tract into expelling the seeds.
Serotonin is also present in plants as phytoserotonin.
Serotonin mediates the animal's perceptions of resources; In less complex animals, such as some invertebrates, resources simply mean food availability. In plants serotonin synthesis seems to be associated with stress signals. In more complex animals, such as arthropods and vertebrates, resources also can mean social dominance. In response to the perceived abundance or scarcity of resources, an animal's growth, reproduction or mood may be elevated or lowered. This may somewhat depend on how much serotonin the organism has at its disposal.
In humans, serotonin is a neurotransmitter used throughout the body having action of 14 variants of the serotonin receptor to have diverse effects on mood, anxiety, sleep, appetite, temperature, eating behaviour, sexual behaviour, movements and gastrointestinal motility. Serotonin is not administered clinically as a drug itself as it is not specific enough. However, drugs that selectively target specific serotonin receptor subtypes are used therapeutically for antidepressant effects; these are called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. They are dependent on serotonin availability in the synapse.
The 5-HT receptors, the receptors for serotonin, are located on the cell membrane of nerve cells and other cell types in animals, and mediate the effects of serotonin as the endogenous ligand and of a broad range of pharmaceutical and hallucinogenic drugs. Except for the 5-HT3 receptor, a ligand-gated ion channel, all other 5-HT receptors are G-protein-coupled receptors (also called seven-transmembrane, or heptahelical receptors) that activate an intracellular second messenger cascade.
Serotonergic action is terminated primarily via uptake of 5-HT from the synapse. This is accomplished through the specific monoamine transporter for 5-HT, SERT, on the presynaptic neuron. Various agents can inhibit 5-HT reuptake, including cocaine, dextromethorphan (an antitussive), tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). A 2006 study conducted by the University of Washington suggested that a newly discovered monoamine transporter, known as PMAT, may account for "a significant percentage of 5-HT clearance".
Contrasting with the high-affinity SERT, the PMAT has been identified as a low-affinity transporter, with an apparent Km of 114 micromoles/l for serotonin; approximately 230 times higher than that of SERT. However, the PMAT, despite its relatively low serotonergic affinity, has a considerably higher transport 'capacity' than SERT, "resulting in roughly comparable uptake efficiencies to SERT in heterologous expression systems.” The study also suggests some SSRIs, such as fluoxetine and sertraline anti-depressants, inhibit PMAT but at IC50 values which surpass the therapeutic plasma concentrations by up to four orders of magnitude. Therefore, SSRI monotherapy is "ineffective" in PMAT inhibition. At present, no known pharmaceuticals are known to appreciably inhibit PMAT at normal therapeutic doses. The PMAT also suggestively transports dopamine and norepinephrine, albeit at Km values even higher than that of 5-HT (330–15,000 μmoles/L).
Serotonin can also signal through a nonreceptor mechanism called serotonylation, in which serotonin modifies proteins. This process underlies serotonin's effects upon platelet-forming cells (thrombocytes) in which it links to the modification of signaling enzymes called GTPases that then trigger the release of vesicle contents by exocytosis. A similar process underlies the pancreatic release of insulin.
The effects of serotonin upon vascular smooth muscle tone (this is the biological function from which serotonin originally got its name) depend upon the serotonylation of proteins involved in the contractile apparatus of muscle cells.
The neurons of the raphe nuclei are the principal source of 5-HT release in the brain. There are nine raphe nuclei, designated B1-B9, which contain the majority of serotonin-containing neurons (some scientists chose to group the nuclei raphes lineares into one nucleus), all of which are located along the midline of the brainstem, and centered on the reticular formation. Axons from the neurons of the raphe nuclei form a neurotransmitter system reaching almost every part of the central nervous system. Axons of neurons in the lower raphe nuclei terminate in the cerebellum and spinal cord, while the axons of the higher nuclei spread out in the entire brain.
The serotonin nuclei may also be divided into two main groups, the rostral and caudal containing three and four nuclei respectively. The rostral group consists of the caudal linear nuclei (B8), the dorsal raphe nuclei (B6 and B7) and the median raphe nuclei (B5, B8 and B9), that project into multiple cortical and subcortical structures. The caudal group consists of the nucleus raphe magnus (B3), raphe obscurus nucleus (B2), raphe pallidus nucleus (B1), and lateral medullary reticular formation, that project into the brainstem.
Serotonergic pathway are involved in sensorimotor function, with pathways projecting both into cortical (Dorsal and Median Raphe Nuclei), subcortical, and spinal areas involved in motor activity. Pharmacological manipulation suggest that serotonergic activity increases with motor activity, while firing rates of serotonergic neurons increase with intense visual stimuli. The descending projections form a pathway that inhibits pain called the "descending inhibitory pathway" that may be relevant to disorder such as fibromyalgia, migraine and other pain disorders, and the efficacy of antidepressants in them.
Serotonergic projections from the caudal nuclei are involved in regulating mood, emotion and hypo or hyperserotonergic states may be involved in depression and sickness behavior.
Serotonin is released into the synapse, or space between neurons, and diffuses over a relatively wide gap (>20 nm) to activate [5-HT receptor]s located on the dendrites, cell bodies and presynaptic terminals of adjacent neurons.
When humans smell food, dopamine is released to increase the appetite. But, unlike in worms, serotonin does not increase anticipatory behaviour in humans; instead, the serotonin released while consuming activates 5-HT2C receptors on dopamine-producing cells. This halts their dopamine release, and thereby serotonin decreases appetite. Drugs that block 5-HT2C receptors make the body unable to recognize when it is no longer hungry or otherwise in need of nutrients, and are associated with weight gain, especially in people with a low number of receptors. The expression of 5-HT2C receptors in the hippocampus follows a diurnal rhythm, just as the serotonin release in the ventromedial nucleus, which is characterised by a peak at morning when the motivation to eat is strongest.
In macaques, alpha males have twice the level of serotonin released in the brain than subordinate males and females (as measured by the levels of 5-Hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5-HIAA) in the cerebro-spinal fluid). Dominance status and cerebro-serotonin levels appear to be positively correlated. When dominant males were removed from such groups, subordinate males begin competing for dominance. Once new dominance hierarchies were established, serotonin levels of the new dominant individuals also increased to double those in subordinate males and females. The reason why serotonin levels are only high in dominant males but not dominant females has not yet been established.
In humans, levels of 5-HT1A receptor activation in the brain show negative correlation with aggression, and a mutation in the gene that codes for the 5-HT2A receptor may double the risk of suicide for those with that genotype. Serotonin in the brain is not usually degraded after use, but is collected by serotonergic neurons by serotonin transporters on their cell surfaces. Studies have revealed nearly 10% of total variance in anxiety-related personality depends on variations in the description of where, when and how many serotonin transporters the neurons should deploy.
Serotonin has been implicated in cognition, mood, anxiety and psychosis, but strong clarity has not been achieved.
Serotonin regulated gastrointestinal function, the gut is surrounded by enterochromaffin cells, which release serotonin in response to food in the lumen. This makes the gut contract around the food. Platelets in the veins draining the gut collect excess serotonin. There are often serotonin abnormalities in gastrointestinal disorders like constipation and irritable bowel syndrome.
If irritants are present in the food, the enterochromaffin cells release more serotonin to make the gut move faster, i.e., to cause diarrhea, so the gut is emptied of the noxious substance. If serotonin is released in the blood faster than the platelets can absorb it, the level of free serotonin in the blood is increased. This activates 5-HT3 receptors in the chemoreceptor trigger zone that stimulate vomiting. Thus, drugs and toxins stimulate serotonin release from enterochromaffin cells in the gut wall. The enterochromaffin cells not only react to bad food but are also very sensitive to irradiation and cancer chemotherapy. Drugs that block 5HT3 are very effective in controlling the nausea and vomiting produced by cancer treatment, and are considered the gold standard for this purpose.
In mice and humans, alterations in serotonin levels and signalling have been shown to regulate bone mass. Mice that lack brain serotonin have osteopenia, while mice that lack gut serotonin have high bone density. In humans, increased blood serotonin levels have been shown to be significant negative predictor of low bone density. Serotonin can also be synthesized, albeit at very low levels, in the bone cells. It mediates its actions on bone cells using three different receptors. Through 5-HT1B receptors, it negatively regulates bone mass, while it does so positively through 5-HT2B receptors and 5-HT2C receptors. There is very delicate balance between physiological role of gut serotonin and its pathology. Increase in the extracellular content of serotonin results in a complex relay of signals in the osteoblasts culminating in FoxO1/ Creb and ATF4 dependent transcriptional events. These studies have opened a new area of research in bone metabolism that can be potentially harnessed to treat bone mass disorders.
Since serotonin signals resource availability it is not surprising that it affects organ development. Many human and animal studies have shown that nutrition in early life can influence, in adulthood, such things as body fatness, blood lipids, blood pressure, atherosclerosis, behavior, learning and longevity. Rodent experiment shows that neonatal exposure to SSRI's makes persistent changes in the serotonergic transmission of the brain resulting in behavioral changes, which are reversed by treatment with antidepressants. By treating normal and knockout mice lacking the serotonin transporter with fluoxetine scientists showed that normal emotional reactions in adulthood, like a short latency to escape foot shocks and inclination to explore new environments were dependent on active serotonin transporters during the neonatal period.
Human serotonin can also act as a growth factor directly. Liver damage increases cellular expression of 5-HT2A and 5-HT2B receptors, mediating liver compensatory regrowth (see Liver § Regeneration and transplantation) Serotonin present in the blood then stimulates cellular growth to repair liver damage. 5HT2B receptors also activate osteocytes, which build up bone However, serotonin also inhibits osteoblasts, through 5-HT1B receptors.
Serotonin, in addition, evokes endothelial nitric oxide synthase activation and stimulates, through a 5-HT1B receptor-mediated mechanism, the phosphorylation of p44/p42 mitogen-activated protein kinase activation in bovine aortic endothelial cell cultures. In blood, serotonin is collected from plasma by platelets, which store it. It is thus active wherever platelets bind in damaged tissue, as a vasoconstrictor to stop bleeding, and also as a fibrocyte mitotic (growth factor), to aid healing.