What are Neurotransmitters & What is Their Function?

What are neurotransmitters? We have looked at this along with what their function is, the different types of neurotransmitters there are, and what makes them so important. We have also included a useful frequently asked questions section answering some of the commonly asked neurotransmitter questions.

Neurotransmitters are important in balancing and boosting signals in our brains to keep the brain functioning. They assist in managing automatic responses such as heart rate and breathing and also have psychological functions such as mood management, learning, fear, happiness, and pleasure.

As far as neurotransmitters go this is just the tip of the iceberg, so if you are looking to improve your knowledge about neurotransmitters then you have come to the right place.

We will be taking an in-depth look at what neurotransmitters do, how they work, the different types of neurotransmitters we have in our body, and what their functions are, so without further ado let’s dive right in.

What are Neurotransmitters?

What are Neurotransmitters & What is Their Function

To put it simply neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the body. It is their job to transmit signals from nerve cells to target cells. These target cells might be in our glands or muscles.

Neurotransmitters essentially allow nerve cells to communicate with each other to help our bodies function. In fact, if it wasn’t for the neurotransmitters our bodies wouldn’t be able to function at all and we would die pretty quickly.

Each neurotransmitter does something different depending on its type and the neuron it is connecting to. There are actually over 100 neurotransmitters in the body.

A neurotransmitter signal will travel from a neuron, across the synapse to the next neuron which is awaiting its message. Although they never actually make direct contact the neurotransmitter chemicals diffuse across the synapse to deliver a signal from one neuron to the next. Synapse is the word given to the space between two neurons.

This all takes part in the body’s CNS (Central Nervous System). The CNS controls the body’s psychological functions, organs, and physical functions. Neurotransmitters alongside the neurons play an important role in ensuring these functions run smoothly.

How Neurotransmitters Work

Neurons use neurotransmitters to communicate through synapses. Once a signal has traveled through one neuron it reaches the end where it can’t travel through to the next neuron. Instead, they release the neurotransmitters. It is then the neurotransmitter’s job to carry the signal across the gap with the goal of reaching the next neuron.

The release of neurotransmitters is triggered by an electrical impulse in the synaptic vesicles. After the neurotransmitters have diffused across the synapse they relay their message by attaching to the specific receptors on the target cells.

Depending on what chemical message is being relayed the neurotransmitters will attach to different receptors, for example, dopamine molecules attach to the dopamine receptors on the target cell.

The neuron that releases the neurotransmitters is called the presynaptic neuron. The neuron that receives the neurotransmitters is the postsynaptic neuron. The process of neurotransmitters being sent from a neuron to the next neuron receptors is called neurotransmission.

After the neurotransmission has taken place the postsynaptic neuron will be told to either release more neurotransmitters, slow down or stop transmitting completely.

Once neurotransmission is over the signal is terminated, allowing the neurons to return to their resting state. Any leftover neurotransmitters in the synapse will be broken down by enzymes or absorbed back into the presynaptic neuron they came from, ready to go again when they are next called upon.

What is Their Function?

So we’ve looked at what a neurotransmitter is and how they deliver chemical messages, but what functions do they help control in our body and how do they influence postsynaptic neurons? Let’s take a look.

Research has shown that neurotransmitters’ main function is to influence neurons in one of three different ways to make changes in the body. These are excite, inhibit, or modulate.

  • Excitatory neurotransmitters - These types of neurotransmitters have an excitatory, stimulating effect on neurons. This type of transmitter will increase the likelihood of a neuron firing further electrical impulses.
  • Inhibitory neurotransmitters - Inhibitory transmitters have the opposite effect on neurons. These neurotransmitters will instead hinder the neuron, decreasing its action potential.
  • Modulatory neurotransmitters - Often referred to as neuromodulators these neurotransmitters have the ability to affect a large number of neurons at the same time whilst also influencing the effects of other neurotransmitters. They do not directly activate receptors but instead work with other neurotransmitters to increase the excitatory and inhibitory responses.

By transferring chemical messages and by influencing neurons, neurotransmitters help control various functions in the body. The body needs a variety of different neurotransmitters to function and carry out a variety of necessary aspects of our lives. These functions include:

  • Heart rate
  • Breathing
  • Muscle Movement
  • Concentration
  • Mood
  • Sleep cycle
  • Digestion and appetite

With there being so many different bodily functions to help control it is a good job there are so many neurotransmitters in our bodies. Neurotransmitters carry out different functions depending on the type of receptor they are connected to. In the following section, we will look at some of the best-known neurotransmitters and how they affect our bodies.

Important Neurotransmitters

As we mentioned earlier there are over 100 different types of neurotransmitters. They all assist in the functionality of our bodies in different ways. The following list goes through some of the key neurotransmitters and how they impact our daily lives.

Acetylcholine

Acetylcholine is responsible for controlling muscle contractions and stimulating some hormones. It also controls the heartbeat and plays a key role in memory and brain function.

This excitatory neurotransmitter has actually been linked to issues with memory. It is believed that low levels of this neurotransmitter can impact those suffering from Alzheimer’s. So much so some Alzheimer’s drugs increase the levels of acetylcholine in the body to try and take back some control over memory loss symptoms.

On the other hand, having too much acetylcholine can lead to seizures, spasms, and other issues as a result of too many muscle contractions. The fact this one type of neurotransmitter can have such a big impact on our bodies goes to show just how important they are to our general health and functionality.

Dopamine

Dopamines are one of the most well-known neurotransmitters. They are important for learning, memory, movement, and behavior. Many people know the dopamine neurotransmitter as the pleasure or reward neurotransmitter. This is because our brains release dopamine when we are taking part in pleasurable activities.

Low levels of dopamine are linked to Parkinson’s disease which is a serious movement disorder. Low levels of dopamine result in poor muscle movement. Lower levels of dopamine can be brought on by eating unhealthy foods that are high in saturated fats.

A healthy diet and lots of exercise has been shown to naturally increase the levels of dopamine in the body which decreases the chances of Parkinson’s.

Endorphins

Endorphins are commonly associated with laughter. They inhibit pain signals and create a euphoric, energized feeling in a person’s body. They act as the human body’s natural pain reliever.

We can naturally boost our endorphin levels through laughter or aerobic exercise which gives us a high feeling and a sense of happiness.

Research has suggested that low levels of endorphins can lead to headache disorders. Endorphins have also been shown as a good way to tackle fibromyalgia. Exercising is seen as a natural treatment as it increases endorphin levels which can be used to reduce fibromyalgia symptoms.

GABA

GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the body’s primary inhibitory messenger. It is located in a number of the brains regions like the hippocampus and thalamus. Its main function is to control vision, anxiety, and motor control.

A low level of GABA is often linked to a variety of illnesses and health issues. Those who have low levels of GABA may struggle to control their impulses which could lead to seizures.

Others may also suffer from serious mental health issues such as bipolar disorder and anxiety. These issues can cause people a lot of pain and discomfort. To treat GABA deficiencies Benzodiazepines are usually prescribed by a doctor. This helps to increase levels of GABA reducing symptoms of mental health disorders.

It can also be a problem if an individual has too much GABA in their brain. Too much GABA can result in sleepiness and a lack of energy.

Glutamate

Glutamate is an amino acid that supports cognitive functions such as memory and learning. Found in the Central Nervous System this is known as the most abundant neurotransmitter. If there is an excess amount of glutamate found in the body, there can be some quite serious health implications.

Too much glutamate can cause excitotoxicity to occur. This results in neurons being killed due to overreactions of glutamate receptors. If neurons are destroyed this can lead to quite horrific illnesses. Some of these illnesses include Alzheimer’s, strokes, and epilepsy.

On the other hand, if there aren’t enough glutamate neurotransmitters people might suffer from psychosis, concentration issues, insomnia, mental exhaustion, or even death.

Serotonin

Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that assists in the regulation of our mood, blood clotting, and sleep cycle. It also plays an important role in depression and anxiety. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors also known as SSRI’s relieve stress and depression by increasing the serotonin levels in the brain.

Serotonin levels in the body can be increased naturally through being exposed to bright light and lots of exercise or by taking supplements. It is believed some people can experience feeling depressed or anxious during the winter months because of the lack of sunlight.

This tends to be when more people turn to serotonin supplements. Those who choose to take supplement tablets should always be careful. Some supplements can have some pretty nasty side effects.

Epinephrine

Epinephrine is the neurotransmitter also referred to as adrenaline. You may be familiar with the word adrenaline if you are an adrenaline junkie who likes to put their body under stress and fear.

This stress hormone is released into the bloodstream via the adrenal glands. It is an excitatory neurotransmitter that stimulates the CNS. This release increases heart rate, breathing, and gives your muscles a burst of energy.

If there is too much adrenaline in the blood we could expect to see a number of potential health problems. These might include anxiety, high blood pressure, insomnia, and strokes. If there isn’t enough adrenaline in the bloodstream individuals might find themselves unable to react appropriately to stressful situations.

Associated Neurotransmitter Disorders

As you have probably already seen neurotransmitters are vital to our body, helping us to function correctly and also occasionally suffer in some quite serious ways. Our mental health can particularly suffer if we don’t have enough of a specific neurotransmitter in our body.

Common symptoms of anxiety and mood disorders have been linked to an imbalance of neurotransmitter levels in the brain. Reduced GABA activity in the brain and an imbalance of serotonin and norepinephrine responses have been shown to increase the chances of experiencing some form of anxiety or depression.

Meanwhile, too many levels of dopamine have been linked to addictions and poor muscle movement causing many people a lot of pain in later life. With it also being believed that low levels of acetylcholine can lead to Alzheimer’s it goes to show just how serious neurotransmitters are.

With there being so many potential disorders as a result of your neurotransmitter levels it’s no surprise that there are many different supplements and drugs being prescribed to deal with a variety of issues.

Medication

There are a variety of different medications used to treat problems caused by a lack of or too many neurotransmitters. Here are three types of medication that you can take.

Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

SSRIs are a type of antidepressant used to reduce and relieve the symptoms of conditions such as anxiety, depression, panic disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

The SSRIs work by stopping the reuptake of serotonin in the neuron that released it. This results in a build-up of serotonin, making it more likely for the serotonin to reach the next neuron
receptors.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines reduce the excitability of nerve signals in the brain for individuals who suffer from insomnia, anxiety, and epilepsy. The drug enhances the brain’s reaction to GABA which calms and relaxes the user. These tablets are usually only prescribed for a couple of weeks. Taking Benzodiazepines can start to alter behavior and start to cause more anxiety.

Antipsychotic Medication

Antipsychotic medication is commonly prescribed to treat symptoms associated with psychosis or people suffering from schizophrenia. Symptoms may include hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia.

People who suffer from these conditions tend to have more dopaminergic activity, therefore antipsychotics workk to combat the dopamine receptors.

Frequently Asked Questions

Your questions answered:

What Neurotransmitter Makes You Feel Angry?

Norepinephrine is the neurotransmitter responsible for making you feel anger or fear. It is this neurotransmitter that triggers the flight or fight response. Fear and anger are classed as one core emotion (the stressful emotion).

How Do You Keep Neurotransmitters Healthy?

There are a number of ways in which you can keep your neurotransmitters healthy. If you look after them, then they will look after you. Having a healthy lifestyle is the best natural way to keep them healthy. You should always eat the right foods, exercise often, get plenty of sleep and consume plenty of proteins that contain amino acids.

If you do these things whilst also staying away from unhealthy saturated fats, your neurotransmitters should stay pretty healthy.

How are Neurotransmitters Tested?

Neurotransmitters circulate around the body in our blood and are filtered out by the kidneys through our urine. As a result of this testing, your urine is a very simple non-invasive way of accurately testing the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the body. Research shows that levels of neurotransmitters in urine correlate directly with both physical and mental symptoms.

What Would Happen If We Had No Neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are super important in keeping our body functioning properly. Without them, our body wouldn’t be able to send chemical messages between neurons. This would prevent the neurons from being able to communicate with each other.

This lack of communication would result in our bodily functions breaking down which would pretty quickly lead to us dying. We owe a lot to the little chemical messengers.

Conclusion

Neurotransmitters play a role in almost every function in our bodies. The chemical messengers travel across the synapses from neuron to neuron to ensure our body is always working efficiently and effectively. Without neurotransmitters, we wouldn’t be able to survive.

Having the perfect balance of neurotransmitters is important if we want to prevent some serious health conditions such as depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s. Although there is no proven way to ensure your neurotransmitters are balanced and working properly, it is believed that a healthy diet and regular exercise can help.

For those struggling with health problems as a result of a neurotransmitter imbalance, there are treatments available. Drugs such as benzodiazepines and SSRIs can be prescribed to help increase serotonin levels and enhance GABA. These increases can help prevent anxiety and depression, giving the sufferer a better quality of life.

It is quite surprising just how much we owe to the little chemical messengers flying around our bodies. There’s no doubt that in the future more research will be done to improve on what we already know but for now, we will have to wait and see what else can be found out.

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