What Are Neurotransmitters?

What Are Neurotransmitters?

Explore the function of neurotransmitters in mood, happiness, and more.

Simply put, neurotransmitters are chemicals found in your brain and body that help tell it what to do. These chemicals are produced naturally by your body and they are responsible for many aspects of your brain’s functioning. The first neurotransmitter was discovered in the early 1900s; over 100 more have been identified since then (Hyman, 2005).

Neurotransmitters work by binding to specific receptors on cells which causes an electrical response. The electrical response started by the neurotransmitter will turn the function of the cell on or off, depending on what the signal was. When a molecule is “excitatory” it turns cells on and if it is “inhibitory” it turns cells off. By turning cells on or off, neurotransmitters play a huge role in almost every aspect of human functioning. They can bind to a wide variety of cells including nerve, muscle, or endocrine cells.

“Consciousness is not just interaction of neurotransmitters in the brain it has also some quantum cosmic component.”
― Amit Ray

Why Are Neurotransmitters Important?

Neurotransmitters are similar to water and blood in that they are essential to basic human functioning. When something is off balance in the neurotransmitter system, it can have a variety of effects on the human body.

Listed below are some common functions of neurotransmitters. As you read through the list, you will see that these chemicals play a role in basically every aspect of your day-to-day life.

Important neurotransmitter functions:

● Regulating heart rhythm

● Body temperature regulation

● Mood regulation

● Forming memories

● Feeling emotions

● Digesting food

● Sleep (Hyman, 2005)

Gaba

Gaba is a neurotransmitter that is mainly described as “inhibitory” which means that it limits or represses the activity of the cell it binds to. The balance between inhibitory and excitatory feedback drives central nervous system functions. Since Gaba is largely responsible for inhibition in the brain, it plays a role in a number of various functions. When Gaba and its receptors are not functioning properly it can cause a wide range of problems.

Glutamate

While Gaba is considered the driver of inhibitory responses, glutamate is considered the driver of excitatory responses, meaning a cell is activated or turned on. Glutamate can be found abundantly throughout the body and is responsible for functions such as memory, cognition, and brain development (Fontana, 2015). Glutamate is especially important for neuroplasticity which is the ability of your brain to adapt and change over time. Because of this, glutamate is an essential component of learning and memory. Dysfunctional glutamate receptors are associated with pathologies such as Alzheimer’s disease or stroke.

Dopamine

While all neurotransmitters are important, dopamine is one of the standouts. This neurotransmitter is produced in both the central nervous system and other parts of the body. It can have both excitatory and inhibitory effects, meaning it is involved in a wide variety of functions (Klein et al., 2018).

Dopamine is a very influential chemical when it comes to human well-being. It is sometimes known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter and substances such as drugs and alcohol can briefly create an abundance of dopamine in the brain, giving people a euphoric feeling. When the person comes down, their dopamine dips below baseline levels, which can make them feel sad and unmotivated.

Serotonin

Serotonin is arguably one of the most well-known neurotransmitters and has long been thought to be a major driver of depression, though that has since been disproven. It was discovered in the early 1900s and has been studied extensively since then. As a result, serotonin has been found to play a role in several bodily functions. It plays a role in various body systems including the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, circulatory, and nervous systems (Jonnakuty & Gragnoli, 2008).

Serotonin is ubiquitous throughout the body, not just in the brain. Interestingly, it is estimated that 95% of the systemic serotonin in your body is produced in your gut with the other 5% produced in the central nervous system (Jonnakuty & Gragnoli, 2008). It is a central neurotransmitter meaning that it plays a huge role in human cognition and has been implicated in a variety of psychiatric disorders. Serotonin’s role in depression will be discussed in more detail below.

Neurotransmitters and Happiness

Happiness can be a difficult construct to define since it looks different for each person and is a result of a combination of biological and environmental factors. Two of the most important biological factors for happiness are the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. While no single neurotransmitter is solely responsible for happiness, these two chemicals play a key role in mood and emotions. In general, it is thought that dopamine regulates positive mood while serotonin regulates negative mood (Mitchell & Phillips, 2007).

In Sum

Neurotransmitters are one of the essential chemical messengers in the human body. They can be found in the brain and throughout all of the other body systems. There are over 100 distinct neurotransmitters, each with a unique function. Neurotransmitters are responsible for some of the most basic human functions such as heart rate regulation and sleep, to the most complex ones including thought and emotion. When a neurotransmitter is not functioning properly it can cause a variety of issues ranging from mild to severe. In summary, neurotransmitters are essential for communication between neurons, regulation of mood and emotions, motor control, memory and learning, and maintaining homeostasis. Without proper neurotransmitter function, the nervous system and overall brain function would be severely impaired.

References

● Fontana, A. C. (2015). Current approaches to enhance glutamate transporter function and expression. Journal of Neurochemistry, 134(6), 982–1007. https://doi.org/10.1111/jnc.13200

● Hyman, S. E. (2005). Neurotransmitters. Current Biology, 15(5). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2005.02.037

● Jonnakuty, C., & Gragnoli, C. (2008). What do we know about serotonin? Journal of Cellular Physiology, 217(2), 301–306. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcp.21533

● Klein, M. O., Battagello, D. S., Cardoso, A. R., Hauser, D. N., Bittencourt, J. C., & Correa, R. G. (2018). Dopamine: Functions, signaling, and association with neurological diseases. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, 39(1), 31–59. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10571-018-0632-3

● Mitchell, R. L. C., & Phillips, L. H. (2007). The psychological, neurochemical and functional neuroanatomical mediators of the effects of positive and negative mood on executive functions. Neuropsychologia, 45(4), 617–629. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.06.030