Dopamine agonists are medications that have similar effects to one of your brain’s key signaling chemicals, dopamine. While they work similarly to dopamine, they also have key differences and don’t cause the same side effects as dopamine. They’re a potential treatment option for conditions affecting many of your body’s systems.
Dopamine agonists are drugs that activate certain types of cells in your brain. They’re a key type of drug for treating movement disorders, especially Parkinson’s disease. Simply put, they activate dopamine receptors.
Cells throughout your nervous system have receptors, which are like locks, on their surfaces. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that your brain uses for communication and control of certain processes. They’re a lot like keys. They have very specific shapes and can “unlock” cells, activating them.
Dopamine (pronounced “DOE-pah-meen”) is one of the most important neurotransmitters in your brain. It’s a key part of how you learn and experience feelings of reward and pleasure. Cells in parts of your brain that control muscle movements also need dopamine to work correctly.
Dopamine agonists are useful because dopamine-dependent cells react to them the same way they would to dopamine. They aren’t dopamine, but your cells can’t tell the difference.
A lack of dopamine can cause major disruptions in how your brain works. Your body also needs dopamine to control processes related to your:
When you don’t have enough dopamine, it can cause many different conditions. Dopamine agonists are approved for or used off-label to treat the following:
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There are several dopamine agonists, but not all have the same uses. Some are mainly for brain-related conditions like Parkinson’s disease. Others are mainly to treat conditions outside your brain.
The earliest dopamine agonist drugs came from ergot, a type of rye fungus. While there are fewer of these in use, some still see use for certain conditions.
Ergot-based dopamine agonists
Non-ergot-based dopamine agonists
Dopamine agonist prescriptions are common. Millions of people in the U.S. have a prescription for them. Parkinson’s disease-related prescriptions are the most common.
Dopamine agonists have several benefits and advantages, including:
While they’re very effective, there are some possible risks or complications from taking dopamine agonists. These side effects are usually more common as dosage increases. They include:
Long-term use of dopamine agonists can also lead to mental health- and behavior-related changes. Some examples include:
Dopamine agonists mimic the effects of dopamine. That can affect your behavior, especially your self-control abilities. That can lead to compulsive behaviors, meaning you can’t manage them. Some examples include:
Dopamine agonist withdrawal syndrome (DAWS) is a potential complication of suddenly reducing the dose of or stopping dopamine agonist medications. It affects between 15% and 20% of people who suddenly switch to a reduced dose or stop their medication altogether.
Researchers are still investigating this effect because it isn’t well understood. However, research shows strong evidence that it happens. The symptoms include:
Research also shows three risk factors increase your risk of developing DAWS:
Having one of those three factors carries a 30% risk of developing DAWS. Having two of them carries a 70% risk. Having all three carries a 92% risk.
There are several reasons you might not be able to take dopamine agonists. Healthcare providers call these “contraindications.” These can include:
You can typically stay on dopamine agonists for years. But the risk of certain side effects increases the longer you’re on them.
Whether you can work or drive if you’re taking dopamine agonists depends on several factors, including your reason for taking a dopamine agonist, the drug you take and more. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you if it’s safe to work or drive while taking these medications.
There are a few key factors in the use of synthetic dopamine vs. dopamine agonists:
Dopamine agonists can have different effects on how you feel, and how they affect you can vary from person to person. Some people may not feel any different, while others may feel physical effects like dizziness or nausea.
Other people may not feel anything at first but may start to feel different after long-term use of these medications. Your healthcare provider is the best person to explain the effects you might feel and what you can or should do if you notice any changes in how you feel.
Some people may experience feelings like mania or euphoria when taking certain dopamine agonists, but this isn’t common.
Dopamine agonists may help depression, but they don’t have official approval in the U.S. for treating it. Research shows that combining dopamine agonists with certain antidepressants may have a stronger effect on treating depression than antidepressants alone. But more research is necessary to confirm this or rule it out.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Dopamine agonists represent an important part of managing chronic conditions and preserving the ability to live independently. They’re some of the most important tools for treating Parkinson’s disease, especially early in the course of the condition. They can also help delay dose increases for other Parkinson’s drugs like levodopa, extending how long you can take those drugs. They can treat many other conditions, too, making them some of the most important prescription medications currently in use.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/09/2023.
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