Last Updated: August 16, 2023

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Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that carry messages from one nerve cell to the next. These tiny molecules are the key to a properly functioning nervous system, which controls many processes, from thoughts to bodily functions. Without neurotransmitters, the body wouldn't be able to operate.

To understand how neurotransmitters work, one can imagine a game of telephone, where a message is whispered from one person to the next. The goal is to see if the message can make it to the end without getting distorted.

Similarly, neurotransmitters carry messages from one neuron to the next, ensuring the message gets to the right place.


What are Neurotransmitters?

What are neurotransmittersNeurotransmitters are chemical messengers facilitating communication between nerve cells, muscle cells, and glands. The discovery of neurotransmitters is a story of scientific inquiry and innovation. In the early 20th century, scientists first began to suspect the existence of these chemical messengers.

Researchers like Otto Loewi and Henry Dale were the first to demonstrate the existence of neurotransmitters. Their groundbreaking discovery opened up a world of possibilities for understanding the complex workings of the brain and body. It continues to drive exciting advances in the field of neuroscience.

"Who would have thought, years ago, that nervous stimulation influences the organs by releasing chemical substances, and that by such means the propagation of impulses from one neurone to another is effected", Otto Loewi.


The Roles of Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters are essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system and play a vital role in the following:


The Release of Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters are stored within thin-walled sacs called synaptic vesicles at the axon terminal's end. Each vesicle can contain thousands of neurotransmitter molecules.

When an electrical signal travels along a nerve cell, the vesicles of neurotransmitters fuse with the nerve cell membrane. They are released into the synapse, the space between one nerve cell and the next target cell (another nerve cell, muscle cell, or gland).

The precise action of neurotransmitters is determined by their chemical composition and the specific receptors they bind to. After being released into the synapse, each type of neurotransmitter lands on and binds to a particular receptor on the target cell, like a key that can only fit and work in its partner lock.

This binding triggers a change or action in the target cell, such as an electrical signal in another nerve cell or a muscle contraction. There are many different types of neurotransmitters, each with its unique chemical composition and function.


What Happens After the Message is Delivered?

The clearance of neurotransmitters from the synaptic cleft is an essential process in maintaining the proper functioning of the nervous system. Once the neurotransmitter has delivered its message, it is removed from the synapse to avoid overstimulation of the target cells. There are three ways in which neurotransmitters are cleared from the synaptic cleft:

  • diffusion
  • reuptake
  • and degradation.



After release, neurotransmitters can diffuse away from the synaptic cleft into nearby tissues. This process is often slow and can be influenced by factors such as the size of the neurotransmitter, the distance from the synapse, and the concentration of the neurotransmitter.



Some neurotransmitters can be reabsorbed by the presynaptic neuron that releases them. Specialized transporter proteins carry out the reuptake process on the presynaptic neuron's membrane.

These transporters recognize and selectively reabsorb specific neurotransmitters back into the neuron, which can be repackaged into vesicles and used again in future signaling.



Other neurotransmitters are broken down by enzymes within the synaptic cleft. Enzymes such as monoamine oxidase and acetylcholinesterase break down neurotransmitters like serotonin and acetylcholine. Once degraded, the neurotransmitter can no longer bind to receptors on the target cell and is effectively removed from the synapse. 


Types of Neurotransmitters

Each neurotransmitter has a unique function, playing a key role in how the body functions. This section will delve into the fascinating world of neurotransmitters, exploring the most significant ones, their functions, and their links to various diseases and disorders.



Acetylcholine is an excitatory neurotransmitter with several central and peripheral nervous system functions. Most neurons release it in the autonomic nervous system to regulate heart rate, blood pressure, and gut motility.

Acetylcholine also affects muscle contractions, memory, motivation, sexual desire, sleep, and learning. Imbalances in acetylcholine levels have been linked to health issues, including Alzheimer's disease, seizures, and muscle spasms.



Dopamine plays a role in the body's reward system, including feeling pleasure, achieving heightened arousal, and learning. It also helps focus, concentration, memory, sleep, mood, and motivation.

Diseases associated with dysfunctions of the dopamine system include Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disease, restless legs syndrome, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Many highly addictive drugs, such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and amphetamines, act directly on the dopamine system.



Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, sleep patterns, sexuality, anxiety, appetite, and pain. Diseases associated with serotonin imbalance include seasonal affective disorder, anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, and chronic pain.

Medications that regulate serotonin and treat these disorders include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).



Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the most common inhibitory neurotransmitter in the nervous system, particularly in the brain. It regulates brain activity to prevent problems with anxiety, irritability, concentration, sleep, seizures, and depression.



Glutamate is the most common excitatory neurotransmitter in the nervous system and the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain.

It plays a key role in cognitive functions like thinking, learning, and memory. Imbalances in glutamate levels are associated with Alzheimer's disease, dementia, Parkinson's disease, and seizures.



Epinephrine (also called adrenaline) and norepinephrine are responsible for the body's "fight-or-flight" response to fear and stress.

These neurotransmitters stimulate the body's response by increasing heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood flow to muscles, as well as heightening the attention and focus on allowing for action or reaction to different stressors. Too much epinephrine can lead to:

  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes, heart disease
  • and other health problems



Norepinephrine (also called noradrenaline) increases blood pressure and heart rate. It is most widely known for its effects on alertness, arousal, decision-making, attention, and focus. Many medications, such as stimulants and depression medications, aim to increase norepinephrine levels to improve concentration or depression symptoms.


Interactions Between Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters often interact with each other in complex ways, leading to synergistic or antagonistic effects on the body.


Synergistic Effects

Synergistic effects occur when the combined action of two or more neurotransmitters produces an effect greater than the sum of their individual effects. One example of a synergistic effect is the interaction between serotonin and norepinephrine. Both neurotransmitters regulate mood and have been targeted in treating depression.

Some antidepressant medications, such as SNRIs, increase the levels of both neurotransmitters. This combination can lead to a greater improvement in mood than increasing the levels of either neurotransmitter alone.

Another example of a synergistic effect is the interaction between GABA and alcohol. Both substances act as depressants of the central nervous system, and their combined effects can lead to increased sedation and impaired cognitive function.

This is why alcohol consumption is strongly discouraged while taking medications that enhance GABA activity, such as benzodiazepines.


Antagonistic Effects

Antagonistic effects occur when one neurotransmitter's action reduces or blocks another's action. An example of an antagonistic effect is the interaction between acetylcholine and dopamine. While acetylcholine is generally excitatory, dopamine is inhibitory.

The two neurotransmitters have opposite effects on the basal ganglia, a group of brain structures involved in movement and reward.

The balance between acetylcholine and dopamine activity is disrupted in Parkinson's disease, where there is a decrease in dopamine levels. This results in excess acetylcholine activity, leading to the movement problems characteristic of the disease.

Another example of an antagonistic effect is the interaction between dopamine and prolactin. Prolactin is a hormone involved in lactation and has been shown to inhibit dopamine release. This can lead to side effects of dopamine-enhancing medications, such as antipsychotics.


Neurotransmitter Imbalances

Neurotransmitters play a crucial role in regulating various bodily functions, and imbalances in their levels can lead to a range of symptoms and health problems. Several factors can contribute to neurotransmitter imbalances, including:



Research suggests that some genetic variations can affect the production and release of neurotransmitters, leading to imbalances.



Prolonged stress can deplete neurotransmitter levels, particularly those involved in mood regulation, such as serotonin and dopamine.


Poor nutrition

A diet lacking in nutrients that support neurotransmitter syntheses, such as amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, can lead to imbalances.



Certain medications, such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, and painkillers, can interfere with neurotransmitter levels and cause imbalances.


Symptoms of Neurotransmitter Imbalances

Symptoms of neurotransmitter imbalances can vary depending on which neurotransmitter is affected and to what extent.

For instance, imbalances in serotonin levels can cause mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety, while imbalances in dopamine levels can affect motivation, focus, and pleasure. Some common symptoms of neurotransmitter imbalances include:

  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Memory problems
  • Poor concentration
  • Headaches


How to Boost Neurotransmitter Levels

Neurotransmitter levels can be naturally boosted by lifestyle changes promoting optimal neurotransmitter function. Here are some ways to boost neurotransmitter levels naturally:

  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Sleep
  • Stress reduction
  • Meditation
  • Essential oils


Frequently Asked Questions

What Are Neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers released by nerve cells (neurons) to deliver signals to neighboring cells (such as other neurons or target cells) across the synaptic cleft.


What is the Difference Between Excitatory and Inhibitory Neurotransmitters?

Excitatory neurotransmitters increase the likelihood of generating a nerve impulse in the target cell. In contrast, inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease the likelihood of generating a nerve impulse in the target cell.


What are Some Common Neurotransmitters in the Nervous System?

Some common neurotransmitters in the nervous system include dopamine, serotonin, GABA, glutamate, and acetylcholine.


How are neurotransmitters connected to central nervous system?

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that play a crucial role in transmitting signals within the central nervous system (CNS).

When an electrical signal, called an action potential, reaches the end of a neuron (presynaptic terminal), it triggers the release of neurotransmitters into the synapse, a small gap between neurons.

These neurotransmitters then bind to specific receptors on the membrane of the postsynaptic neuron, initiating a new electrical signal. This process allows communication between neurons and facilitates the transmission of information throughout the CNS, enabling various physiological functions and behaviors.


How do neurotransmitters fit within the broader scope of neurobiology and neuroplasticity?

Neurotransmitters are integral to the chemical dialogue happening within our brain, governing every neural activity. They are a subset of the expansive field of neurobiology, which studies the nervous system in its entirety. Moreover, these chemical messengers play a pivotal role in neuroplasticity, underscoring how our brain adjusts and reforms in response to various stimuli and experiences.



Dopamine interaction with other neurotransmitter systems: Relevance in the pathophysiology and treatment of CNS disorders

Electrochemical Detection of Neurotransmitters

Review Article Interaction of neurotransmitters and neurochemicals with lymphocytes

Neurotransmitters: What They Are, Functions & Types 

Physiology, Neurotransmitters - StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf

Neurotransmitters: Functions, Types, Potential Problems 

What are neurotransmitters? - Queensland Brain Institute 

Neurotransmitters: What they are, functions, and psychology 

Otto Loewi and Henry Dale: The Discovery of Neurotransmitters



The contents of this article are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is always recommended to consult with a qualified healthcare provider before making any health-related changes or if you have any questions or concerns about your health. Anahana is not liable for any errors, omissions, or consequences that may occur from using the information provided.