What Is GABA and Why Is It Important?

What Is GABA and Why Is It Important?

Learn how this brain chemical works and why it’s important for your health.

The brain is an almost inconceivably complex system of billions of neurons interlinked via
trillions of connections that work to coordinate everything you do, think, and feel (Zimmer, 2011). This system works via the chemical regulation of electrical activity. Chemicals called neurotransmitters are created in one brain cell and released into the tiny space between brain cells, called the synaptic cleft. When the neurotransmitter binds to the neuron on the other side of the synaptic cleft, that post-synaptic neuron may change in some way.
This system is amazingly complex and neuroscientists continue to discover just how brain cells communicate with one another. There are over 40 known chemicals that can act as
neurotransmitters. These different chemicals all have different effects on brain cells and are present in different concentrations in different parts of the brain. For example, glutamate is the brain’s primary excitatory neurotransmitter – it has the effect of making individual neurons more likely to generate electrical impulses. In contrast, Gamma-aminobutyric Acid, or GABA, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter – it has the effect of making individual neurons less likely to generate electrical impulses. In this article, we’ll talk about what GABA is and how it works in the brain. We’ll also discuss how you may be able to increase levels of GABA in your brain and why you may want to do this.

“Given that observable neurobehavioural characteristics in adulthood are determined in part by GABA-A receptors in early life, and the impact of GABA-acting drugs during pregnancy – in particular, on the construction of the brain – have been said to lead to ‘a cascade of pathogenic consequences’, it’s clear that the long-term effects of phenobarbital regularly administered during infancy would be severe.”
― Antonella Gambotto-Burke,

What Is GABA?

GABA is the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter (Buzsaki et al., 2007). When GABA is released, it’s almost like pressing down on the brain’s brake pedals, slowing things down and limiting or preventing excessive neural activity. When GABA binds to a neuron, that neuron becomes less likely to generate an electrical impulse. The neuron then requires more contact with excitatory neurotransmitters to fire. This is a critically important job – too much brain activity can lead to several negative effects including seizures and convulsions. Some of these negative effects may irreparably damage brain cells, sometimes even leading to death.

GABA deficits and excessive brain activity have been implicated in serious degenerative brain disorders like Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases (Wong et al., 2003). Even when the effects of excessive brain activity aren’t deadly, they can still negatively impact health and well-being. For example, impaired GABA transmission and excessive brain activity may contribute to sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, ADHD, schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders. The inhibitory effects of GABA are necessary for a healthy, balanced, and well-functioning neural system.

As the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA is critically important to neural activity across the brain and plays a role in several different mental and cognitive processes. In the parts of the brain responsible for decision-making and cognition, higher concentrations of GABA are associated with better cognitive functioning in older adults (Porges et al., 2017). In the part of the brain responsible for visual perception and information processing, more GABA predicts better performance on a visual decision-making task (Edden et al., 2012). Similarly, in the part of the brain responsible for the coordination of movement, higher levels of GABA are associated with better performance on a tactile decision-making task (Puts et al., 2011). These results suggest that GABA is critically important to the healthy functioning of many different parts of the brain.

The Benefits of GABA

Impaired GABA functioning may be partially reversed by pharmacological or dietary interventions that increase GABA (Ngo & Vo., 2019). Some of the specific beneficial effects of increasing GABA may include

● Improved sleep quality and decreased insomnia

● Antidepressant effects

● Relaxation and decreased anxiety

● Improved long-term memory

● Improved cognitive functioning

In addition to the beneficial effects of GABA within the brain, GABA may also have beneficial effects throughout the body including

Heart health – GABA may reduce hypertension and lower blood pressure

Diabetes – GABA and GABA-enriched foods may lower glucose, decrease insulin resistance, stimulate insulin release, and prevent pancreatic damage

Cancer – GABA may slow or even suppress tumor growth

Inflammation – GABA may inhibit inflammation

Allergies – GABA may limit the effects of histamines

Protective – effects on the kidneys and intestines

In Sum

It may seem counterintuitive that a chemical that slows down brain activity can be so important to a healthy and well-functioning neural system. Without the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA to prevent excessive neural activity, brain cells would fire excessively, leading to tremors, convulsions, seizures, and eventual cell death. Although less dramatic, excessive electrical activity in the brain may also result in insomnia, anxiety, depression, hypersensitivity, hyperactivity, and impaired cognitive functioning. The presence of GABA within the brain works to counteract some of these distressing effects of excessive neural excitability. A balance between excitation and inhibition of electrical impulses is key to a healthy neural system and GABA is one of the keys to this balance.

References

● Buzsáki, G., Kaila, K., & Raichle, M. (2007). Inhibition and brain work. Neuron, 56(5), 771-783.

● Edden, R. A., Crocetti, D., Zhu, H., Gilbert, D. L., & Mostofsky, S. H. (2012). Reduced GABA concentration in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Archives of general psychiatry, 69(7), 750-753.

● Ngo, D. H., & Vo, T. S. (2019). An updated review on pharmaceutical properties of gamma-aminobutyric acid. Molecules, 24(15), 2678.

● Porges, E. C., Woods, A. J., Edden, R. A., Puts, N. A., Harris, A. D., Chen, H., … & Cohen, R. A. (2017). Frontal gamma-aminobutyric acid concentrations are associated with cognitive performance in older adults. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, 2(1), 38-44.

● Puts, N. A., Edden, R. A., Evans, C. J., McGlone, F., & McGonigle, D. J. (2011). Regionally specific human GABA concentration correlates with tactile discrimination thresholds. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(46), 16556-16560.

● Wong, C. G., Bottiglieri, T., & Snead, O. C. (2003). GABA, gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, and neurological disease. Annals of Neurology, 54(6), 3–12.

● Zimmer, C. (2011, January). 100 trillion connections: new efforts probe and map the brain’s detailed architecture. Scientific American.