The ability of l-3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine (l-DOPA), l-DOPA-methyl ester and their major metabolites, dopamine, dihydroxyphenylacetic acid (DOPAC), homovanillic (HVA), 3-O-methyldopa and 3-methoxytyramine (3-MT) to bind to alpha(2) adrenergic and D1 and D2 dopamine receptors was assessed by radioligand binding to cloned human receptors expressed in cell lines. As anticipated, dopamine bound with high affinity to D1 (IC(50) 1.1 + or - 0.16 microM) and D2 (IC(50) 0.7 + or - 0.3 microM) dopamine receptors. However, dopamine also bound with high affinity to alpha(2A) (IC(50) was 2.6 + or - 0.5 microM), alpha(2C) (IC(50) 3.2 + or - 0.7 microM). 3-MT bound to alpha(2A) with high affinity (IC(50), 3.6 + or - 0.2 microM) though moderate affinity to alpha(2)c, D1 and D2 receptors (values of IC(50) were 55 + or - 14, 121 + or - 43, 36 + or - 14 microM, respectively). l-DOPA-methyl ester bound with high affinity to alpha(2) (IC(50) 17-36 microM) but not dopamine receptors (IC(50) 0.9-2.5 mM). l-DOPA, 3-O-methyldopa and DOPAC had no observable effect on binding to any of the receptors tested. These data suggest that the effects of l-DOPA in Parkinson's disease may result from actions of its metabolites dopamine and 3-MT on both dopaminergic and non-dopaminergic receptors. These findings may provide explanations for the differences between l-DOPA and dopamine receptor agonists in mediating anti-parkinsonian effects and propensity to be associated with dyskinesia and motor complications such as wearing-off and on-off.