LC-MS/MS: Detecting Neurotransmitters in Urine

Liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) is a powerful tool used in neuroscience research to precisely measure neurotransmitters and their breakdown products (metabolites) in biological fluids like urine. This technique offers significant advantages over traditional methods, allowing for more detailed analysis of the nervous system's chemical workings.

The LC-MS/MS Process

LC-MS/MS combines two analytical techniques:

  • Liquid Chromatography (LC): This method separates complex mixtures based on the chemical properties of their components. In neurotransmitter analysis, LC separates urine into its individual molecules, including neurotransmitters and other substances.
  • Mass Spectrometry (MS): Following separation by LC, MS turns the isolated molecules into charged particles and measures their mass-to-charge ratio (m/z). This unique identifier allows for pinpointing specific neurotransmitters.

The principle of the LC-MS/MS method used in Paper IV. The samples containing the analyte (M, mass) were injected into an ultraperformance liquid chromatography (UPLC) column for separation (RT, retention time) and the separated metabolites were detected using positive [M+H]+ electro-spray ionization (ESI) in positive mode where only analyte ions with one extra H+ are allowed to enter the extractor cone and further to the MS/MS analyzer. MS/MS implies two quadrupole filters/mass analyzers (Q1 and Q3) with a collision cell (Q2) of high pressure of argon gas fragmenting (depending on the collision energy) the analyte precursor ion (M+) into several product ions (P+) of which only one is allowed to reach the detector. Detection (time interval is regulated by the dwell time) results in chromatograms from which the amount of a specific analyte can be determined.

Enhanced Specificity

The "tandem" aspect of LC-MS/MS refers to the use of two mass spectrometers in sequence. The first MS (MS1) performs an initial separation based on m/z. Ions potentially containing the neurotransmitter of interest are then fragmented in a collision chamber. The resulting fragments are analyzed by the second MS (MS2), providing a highly specific signature for the target neurotransmitter. This two-step process significantly reduces background noise and improves the detection of neurotransmitters at low concentrations, which is essential for analyzing dilute samples like urine.

Quantification methods for liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC- MS/MS) analysis. There are two major methods for quantification: label-free, labeling with stable isotopes. The two main non-labeling methods are based on the intensity of MS chromatograms and the spectral counts of identified peptides. Labeling methods are classified into two major groups: metabolic labeling and in vitro labeling. The representative of the metabolic labeling is SILAC. In SILAC, two cell cultures to be compared are differentially labeled with heavy amino acids containing stable isotopes (heavy) and normal amino acids (light). Lysates from differentially labeled cells are mixed, digested with protease and analyzed by LC-MS/MS. Differentially labeled peptides having the same amino acid sequence are detected in MS spectrum, and the relative abundance of the peptides can be compared by calculating their ratio. The representative of the in vitro labeling is performed using isobaric amine-specific tandem mass tags, such as iTRAQ. The iTRAQ reagent consists of reporter regions with 1 Da difference (molecular weight: 114, 115, 116...) and balance regions that adjust the molecular weight of the labeled parent ions (molecular weight: 31, 30, 29...). Each tag generates a unique reporter ion in the MS/MS spectra, and the relative abundance of the peptides can be compared by calculating their ratio. acid sequence are detected in the MS spectrum, and the relative abundance of the peptides derived from different samples can be compared by calculating their ratio. Isobaric tagging for relative and absolute quantitation/tandem mass tags is a recently developed protein quantification method that uses isobaric amine-specific tandem mass tags and quantification in MS/MS instead of MS spectra. In MS spectra, the differentially labeled peptides possess the same mass by using the balance region in the tag and are represented in a combined single peak (Figure 2). However, each tag generates a unique reporter ion, and the intensities of the reporter ions in the MS/MS spectra are compared for protein quantification. iTRAQ can comparatively analyze four or eight different conditions in one

Challenges and Considerations

While LC-MS/MS is a powerful tool, analyzing neurotransmitters in urine presents some difficulties. Neurotransmitters are often present in low amounts and can be easily broken down by enzymes. Therefore, preparing samples properly is crucial to optimize extraction efficiency and minimize degradation. Additionally, other compounds in urine can interfere with the analysis, necessitating careful optimization of chromatography and MS settings.

Applications in Neurotransmitter Research

LC-MS/MS has revolutionized the study of neurotransmitters in urine. Researchers can now investigate the levels of various neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate, along with their metabolites. This information provides valuable insights into:

  • Neurological disorders: Abnormal neurotransmitter levels are linked to Parkinson's disease, depression, and other neurological conditions. LC-MS/MS can aid in diagnosing and monitoring these diseases.
  • Drug effects: Researchers can use LC-MS/MS to assess how drugs impact neurotransmitter levels, helping in the development of new treatment strategies.
  • Stress and behavior: Studies have shown correlations between stress and changes in urinary neurotransmitter levels. LC-MS/MS can contribute to a better understanding of the neurochemical basis of stress and behavior.

Applications in Neurotransmitter Research


LC-MS/MS is a powerful and versatile technique for detecting neurotransmitters in urine. By combining the strengths of liquid chromatography and tandem mass spectrometry, researchers can gain deeper insights into the complexities of the nervous system, paving the way for advancements in our understanding of brain function, diseases, and the development of novel therapeutic interventions.

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LC-MS/MS: Detecting Neurotransmitters in Urine
Gentaur Bvba, Lieven Gevaert June 13, 2024
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