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Neurotransmitters 101: All You Need to Know

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The human body is a wonderfully intricate organism, depending on various mechanisms, organs, systems, and functions to operate at maximum efficiency. At the core of all these interconnected elements is the nervous system. This stems from the brain and runs through every other part of the body, effectively controlling their activities.

In this piece, we’ll be taking a closer look at what neurotransmitters are, the types we have in our bodies, and how they function. We’ll pay particular attention to some of the ways they impact our physical and mental wellbeing. Don’t be worried; we won’t dive too deep into the medical jargon surrounding the topic; the idea here is to learn something new.

So let’s get right to it.


The Nervous System

The basic building block of the nervous system is known as a neuron, and its function is to work as a messenger, passing signals from the brain to the rest of the body and passing back impulses from the body back to the brain. Neurons can be described as short strings placed end-to-end that spread throughout our entire bodies, and they work by sending electrical signals along their lengths. Even though each neuron might have as many as 15,000 connections with neighboring neurons, they do not, however, touch each other directly at any point.

So what happens once an electrical signal travels from one tip of a neuron to the opposing end? That’s where neurotransmitters come in. Various tips of a neuron interface with those of another through structures known as synapses, which feature tiny gaps within which the neurotransmitters travel.


What is a Neurotransmitter?

Diagram of the neurotransmitter dopamine, dopaminergic neurons and it's pathways

Neurotransmitters are essentially chemical go-betweens that deliver signals emanating from neurons and heading to their target cells, which might be other nerve cells, muscle cells, or glands. These chemicals do not attach themselves to random targets. A dopamine receptor, for example, will only attach itself to dopamine receptors, thereby triggering certain actions in the target cell.

When we speak of triggering actions in the target cells, we describe actions that influence a vast array of psychological and physical reactions. These include digestion, mood, appetite, muscle movement, concentration, heart rate, sleep cycles, breathing, and so on. When the neurotransmitters corresponding to any of these functions are in low supply or dysfunctional, the system or function in question will also be impaired.


It’s helpful to note that once a neurotransmitter has done its job, it has to be removed in some way from the synapse so that it doesn’t keep continuously activating the receptor cell. Our bodies take care of this potential problem through three processes, namely:


  • Reuptake: Here, the released neurotransmitter will be taken back up by the neuron that initially released it, effectively taking it out of the equation.
  • Degradation: Some neurotransmitters will have to be broken down through the action of enzymes introduced into the synapse. These will interfere with the chemical composition of the neurotransmitter, eventually leading to their destruction.
  • Diffusion: Here, the neurotransmitter will simply drift away from its receptor once it has met its receptor. After diffusion, neurotransmitters that are not degraded will eventually be absorbed by glial cells surrounding the synapse.


The Various Categories of Neurotransmitters

There are different methods of categorizing neurotransmitters, with the broadest and, perhaps, most useful being the effect on the receptor cells. This is the most interesting metric to consider them by. We can place them in these three categories:


  • Excitatory Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters that work in this fashion trigger responses that cause the receiving neuron or cell to generate a nerve impulse, which is a new electrical signal. It is an action signal which provokes reactions in other cells. An excellent example to consider is when we touch a hot surface. The neurotransmission activity will occur from our fingertips through the nerves and eventually lead to our brains.


  • Inhibitory Neurotransmitters

As the name suggests, these neurotransmitters help trigger a response that prevents or slows a particular reaction in the body. It works in the direct opposite way that excitatory neurotransmitters work.


  • Modulatory Neurotransmitters

These are something of a mix between the two previous categories in that their effect on receptors may vary. When triggered by modulating receptors, the result might be that consequent reactions will show a preference for excitatory or inhibitory effects.


Different Types of Neurotransmitters and Their Functions

Now, hundreds of neurotransmitters have been discovered, but they are not all alike in terms of importance, activity, and volumes within our systems. Some of the essential neurotransmitters in the human body include:


  • Gamma-AminoButyric Acid (GABA)

Diagram of neurotransitters GABA and Glutamate

This inhibitory neurotransmitter helps keep our neurons stable, avoiding irritability, restlessness, and anxiety. The treatment of anxiety through benzodiazepines works by increasing the levels of GABA in the patient’s system, thereby calming them.


  • Glutamate

This is considered the most abundant neurotransmitter in the human body and works in combination with GABA to maintain homeostasis in the human body. It is present in high volumes because it is a key element in the working of the nervous system, which traverses all points of the body. While there are plenty of natural sources of glutamate in nature, such as tomatoes, cheese, soy, seaweed, mushrooms, and so on, too much of it in your system may lead to having a stroke.


  • Acetylcholine

This is an excitatory neurotransmitter that plays a key role in facilitating muscle contractions, controlling our heartbeats, stimulating the production of certain hormones, and enabling proper memory and brain function. Patients who have Alzheimer’s disease take medication that slows down the breakdown of acetylcholine.


  • Endorphins

These are popularly known as nature’s painkillers due to their role in inhibiting pain signals when the body determines them to be detrimental to its overall wellbeing. The most common example of this is the runner’s high,’ an energized feeling of euphoria that comes over a runner after a long stretch of exertion. Laughter also triggers the release of this neurotransmitter.


  • Serotonin

This inhibitory neurotransmitter is essential in regulating a person’s appetite, mood, blood clotting ability, circadian rhythm, and sleep. It is especially notable in its involvement in conditions such as anxiety and depression, which affect countless people worldwide.


  • Epinephrine

Most of us know this as adrenaline, which is the agent responsible for our fight or flight response. While this can be useful in times of danger, excessive quantities of this neurotransmitter/hormone are also highly stressful on the body, potentially resulting in high blood pressure, heart disease, decreased immunity, diabetes, and so on. Epinephrine has various applications in the medical industry, including treating serious conditions, including cardiac arrest, asthma attacks, severe infections, allergic reactions, etc.


Diseases and Disorders that Neurotransmitters Influence

Various conditions strongly relate to the levels of certain types of neurotransmitters in the patient’s system. The scientific community has reasonable confidence in linking the following conditions to certain neurotransmitters, as follows:


  • Depression

The state we know as clinical depression has been shown to come about due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Specifically, it is the patient’s depletion or lack of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. For this reason, patients suffering from this condition are typically treated with medications aimed at increasing the levels of these neurotransmitters in the patient’s brain. SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) are an example of such medications, which work by keeping the reuptake process (as we mentioned earlier) from occurring, thus keeping their levels optimal.


  • Huntington’s Disease

This disease is considered a primarily hereditary condition, meaning that it travels generationally from parents to their children and is, unfortunately, without a cure. The consensus on its causes is a chronic reduction in the neurotransmitter levels known as GABA in the patient’s brain. Treatment is undertaken through the administering of this inhibitory neurotransmitter.


  • Alzheimer’s Disease

This condition affects a significant segment of the elderly population and is characterized by learning and memory impairment. This neurodegenerative disorder is thought to be occasioned by drops in the levels of acetylcholine within regions of the patient’s brain.


  • Schizophrenia

This is a severe mental condition characterized by mental breaks and psychotic episodes that can be distressing and potentially harmful to the patient and those around them. It is believed that the onset of Schizophrenia may be triggered by chronic and continued drug use, which interferes with the body’s ability to regulate the levels of dopamine in its system. The treatment of Schizophrenia is conducted medically by administering drugs that inhibit dopamine levels in the patient’s frontal lobes.


Final Thoughts

Due to the sheer number of neurotransmitters and difficulty pinpointing the exact causes of certain conditions (a combination of factors causes some), many of these conditions are still being studied and are yet to be fully understood. These include epilepsy, Myasthenia Gravis and more. One study explains the roles of Glutamate Receptors in Parkinson’s Disease. Even so, neurotransmitter levels should be carefully kept in check if you wish to stay at full health. Don’t hesitate to get yourself checked out if you suspect any imbalances.

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