Exploring the Functions, Effects, and Importance of Your Neurotransmitters

Have you ever wondered how your brain communicates, coordinating the intricate dance of signals that allow you to move, learn, and experience the world around you?

It’s all possible thanks to your neurotransmitters – the fascinating chemical messengers that shape our thoughts, emotions, and actions. From the moment we wake up to the dreams we have at night, neurotransmitters are the conductors of our brain’s symphony, orchestrating our neural activity.

So whether you’re curious to expand your understanding of the brain or you’re looking to optimize your mental well-being, dive into the depths of neuroscience with us and unlock the secrets of neurotransmitters.

 

Neurons Electrical Pulses

What are neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that play a crucial role in communication within the body.[1] Think of them as little couriers carrying important messages between different cells in your body, particularly nerve cells called neurons.

Neurotransmitters transmit chemical signals, often called “messages,” from one neuron to its intended target cell, including other neurons, muscle cells, or even your glands.

Your body’s nervous system sends and receives electrical signals between nerve cells and their target cells. This intricate system controls various functions, including thoughts, emotions, muscle movements, and organ regulation. Nerve cells are vital in every aspect of your actions, thoughts, and sensations, ensuring optimal body functioning.

 

How do neurotransmitters work?

Nerve cells consist of three main parts:[2]

  • Cell body
  • Axon
  • Axon Terminal

Sacs called synaptic vesicles store neurotransmitters in the axon terminal. An electrical signal travels along a nerve cell.  When it reaches the end of the neuron,  the synaptic vesicles release neurotransmitters into the synaptic junction, a fluid-filled space between the nerve and target cells.[3] Neurotransmitters bind to specific receptors on the target cell (like a key fitting into a lock), triggering changes or actions such as electrical signals in other nerve cells, muscle contractions, or releasing hormones from glands.

 

people doing yoga

What body functions do nerves and neurotransmitters control?

Nerves and neurotransmitters control a wide range of body functions, including:

  • Senses (responses to what you see, hear, feel, taste, and touch)
  • Muscle movements
  • Breathing
  • Heartbeat and blood pressure
  • Digestion
  • Thinking, memory, and learning
  • Emotions and mood
  • Hormone regulation
  • Stress response
  • Sleep
  • Healing and aging

 

What effects do neurotransmitters have on the target cells?

Neurotransmitters have three possible actions in their messages, depending on the specific neurotransmitter involved: [4]

  1. Excitatory: Excitatory neurotransmitters (glutamate, epinephrine, and norepinephrine) stimulate the neuron, causing it to continue passing the message to the next cell.
  2. Inhibitory: Inhibitory neurotransmitters (GABA, glycine, and serotonin) block or prevent the chemical message from being transmitted further.
  3. Modulatory: Modulatory neurotransmitters influence the effects of other chemicals.

 

brain neurons

Brain Basics: 4 Types of Neurotransmitters

Scientists have identified over 100 neurotransmitters, and even more may be waiting to be discovered. These neurotransmitters can be categorized based on their chemical properties. Let’s explore the four main types of neurotransmitters, along with their respective functions:

Amino Acids

These neurotransmitters play crucial roles in the function of your nervous system:

  • Glutamate: The primary excitatory neurotransmitter in your nervous system is abundant in your brain and essential for cognitive functions such as thinking, learning, and memory.[5] Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and seizures are conditions linked to glutamate imbalances.[6] [7]
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA): The primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in your nervous system, especially in your brain.[8] GABA regulates brain activity, preventing issues related to anxiety, irritability, concentration, sleep, seizures, and depression.[9]
  • Glycine: Glycine is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in your spinal cord and controls processes related to hearing, pain transmission, and metabolism.[10]

These neurotransmitters are integral to the functioning of your nervous system, influencing various aspects of your brain and bodily processes.

Monoamines

These neurotransmitters play diverse roles in the nervous system, particularly in the brain. They play a role in regulating various functions and are implicated in several nervous system disorders.

  • Serotonin: An inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, sleep patterns, sexuality, anxiety, appetite, and pain.[11] Serotonin imbalances are associated with seasonal affective disorder, anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, migraines, and chronic pain.
  • Dopamine: Plays a role in the brain’s reward system, pleasure sensation, learning, focus, concentration, memory, mood, and motivation.[12] Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, restless legs syndrome, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are disorders linked to dysfunctions in the dopamine system.
  • Norepinephrine: Also called noradrenaline, raises blood pressure and heart rate.[13] Norepinephrine is known for its effects on alertness, decision-making, attention, and focus.

Peptide Neurotransmitters

Peptides are chains of amino acids that act as neurotransmitters, transmitting signals between nerve cells.[14] They are involved in synaptic communication and can have excitatory or inhibitory effects on the target cells.

  • Endorphins: They play a crucial role in our perception of pain, are associated with feelings of well-being, and act as natural pain relievers in the body.[15] Fibromyalgia and certain types of headaches are related to low levels of endorphins. We often think of these as natural and endogenous opioids, meaning we create them ourselves to reduce pain.

Acetylcholine

Acetylcholine, an excitatory neurotransmitter, serves various functions in the central nervous system (CNS), encompassing the brain and spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), comprising the nerves branching from the CNS. Most neurons in the autonomic nervous system release acetylcholine, contributing to the regulation of heart rate, blood pressure, and gut motility.[16]

Acetylcholine is also involved in muscle contractions, memory formation, motivation, sexual desire, sleep regulation, and learning processes. Health conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and muscle spasms are associated with imbalances in acetylcholine levels.[17]

 

man with a headache

What can cause a neurotransmitter not to function correctly?

Several factors can contribute to the improper functioning of neurotransmitters, including:

  • Insufficient production: Inadequate neurotransmitter production due to genetics, nutrient deficiencies, or medical conditions can disrupt signaling.
  • Malfunctioning receptors: Damaged or faulty receptors may hinder effective neurotransmitter reception and communication.
  • Impaired release or reuptake: Issues with neurotransmitter release or reuptake can disrupt their proper functioning and transmission.
  • Enzyme dysfunction: Abnormalities or deficiencies in the enzymes responsible for neurotransmitter breakdown can lead to their accumulation and disruption.
  • Drug interactions: Certain medications or substances can interfere with neurotransmitter function, either blocking or mimicking their activity.
  • Neurological disorders: Various neurological conditions, like Parkinson’s disease or depression, can impact neurotransmitter function through abnormalities in production release or receptor interactions.

Symptoms of neurotransmitter dysfunction can include:

  • Mood disorders
  • Difficulties with memory or concentration
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Motor control issues
  • Changes in heart rate or blood pressure
  • Excessive sweating
  • Difficulties regulating body temperature
  • Sensory disturbances
  • Behavioral changes

Neurotransmitter dysfunction can be complex and multifaceted, often involving a combination of factors and symptoms. Understanding the underlying causes is crucial for developing effective treatments and interventions to restore proper neurotransmitter function.

 

spring flowers

Prioritize Your Neurological Health

Understanding the different types of neurotransmitters and their impact on your brain and body is crucial for maintaining overall well-being. If you suspect a neurotransmitter imbalance, seeking professional help is essential.

Dr. Kelly and the team at the Spring Center specialize in neurological health and offer comprehensive care for neurotransmitter imbalances. So, if you’re ready to prioritize your neurological health, complete our New Patient Inquiry Form.

 

Resources

  1. “What Defines a Neurotransmitter? – Neuroscience – NCBI Bookshelf.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10957/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  2. “Neurotransmitter – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/neurotransmitter. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  3. “Neurotransmitters—Key Factors in Neurological and … – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9180936/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  4. “Mapping Chemical Neurotransmission in the Brain – PubMed.” 6 Mar. 2019, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30844392/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  5. “Glutamate: The Master Neurotransmitter and Its Implications in ….” https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2021.722323/full. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  6. “Role of glutamate and NMDA receptors in Alzheimer’s disease – PMC.” 31 Jan. 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5791143/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  7. “Roles of Glutamate Receptors in Parkinson’s Disease – PMC – NCBI.” 6 Sep. 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6769661/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  8. “Neurotransmitters as food supplements: the effects of GABA on brain ….” 6 Oct. 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4594160/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  9. “Altered connectivity in depression: GABA and glutamate … – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6450409/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  10. “Glycine neurotransmitter transporters: an update – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11396606/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  11. “The Expanded Biology of Serotonin – PMC – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5864293/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  12. “The Role of Dopamine and Its Dysfunction as a Consequence of ….” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4684895/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  13. “Physiology, Noradrenergic Synapse – StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf.” 1 May. 2023, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK540977/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  14. “Peptide Neurotransmitters – Neuroscience – NCBI Bookshelf.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10873/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  15. “Roles of β-Endorphin in Stress, Behavior, Neuroinflammation, and ….” 30 Dec. 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7796446/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  16. “Acetylcholine as a neuromodulator: cholinergic signaling shapes ….” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3466476/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.
  17. “Role of Cholinergic Signaling in Alzheimer’s Disease – PMC – NCBI.” 10 Mar. 2022, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8949236/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2023.