What are neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin?
October 28, 2020
Neurotransmitters carry messages from nerve cell to nerve cell and, while you may never spare them a passing thought, they are involved in everything we do.
By constantly shuttling information around your brain and between your brain and body, these chemicals ensure your heart keeps pumping and your muscles keep moving.
They also help us store memories and make us sleepy at the end of the day. They enable us feel pain – and are behind the urge to constantly check our mobile phones for messages.
No one knows just how many of these chemical messengers there are, although it’s more than 100, but let’s introduce you to three of the hardest workers:
Made in two areas of the brain so tiny that together, they are smaller than a postage stamp, dopamine has wide-ranging effects. It gets us hooked on pleasurable activities (be it eating pizza, having sex or checking our phones for messages), and it is involved in memory, attention and concentration, as well as mood, sleep and the production of breast milk.
Too much or too little of it is linked to mental health conditions including schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and drug addiction.
It is also key to movement and the death of dopamine-producing brain cells leads to the tremors, stiffness and gradual slowing of the body of Parkinson’s disease.
Also known as 5-HT, serotonin is mainly found in the brain, bowels and platelets (tiny cells that help form blood clots).
Sometimes called the ‘happy chemical’, it is believed to help regulate appetite, digestion, sleep, memory and libido and to be key to mood.
Depression is linked to low levels of serotonin and Prozac and other anti-depressants known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) increase levels in the brain.
The first neurotransmitter to be discovered, and also one of the most abundant, acetylcholine tells our muscles to contract, controls our heart rate and is involved in learning and memory.
In Alzheimer’s disease, the cells that make and use acetylcholine are damaged and destroyed, reducing the amount that’s available to carry messages. Some of the most common Alzheimer’s treatments, known as cholinesterase inhibitors, slow the worsening of symptoms by increasing acetylcholine levels in the brain.
Other hardworking neurotransmitters include gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), glutamate, histamine and adrenaline (norepinephrine).
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