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Brain Awareness Week: Neurotransmitters and Their Effect on Mental Health

Brain Awareness Week is a global campaign to cultivate support for brain science. It takes place March 14-20, 2022 this year and was first initiated by Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and the European Dana Alliance for the Brain in 1996. Brain Awareness Week’s general aim is to share how brain science has an impact on our daily lives and the community. The annual event is celebrated by many around the globe such as universities, medical research labs, hospitals, elementary schools, and government agencies. 

From a nanoscale perspective, neurotransmitters are found in our brains. They are chemical messengers that transmit signals from and between nerve cells. They can directly communicate to target cells, including muscles and glands. Working together, neurotransmitters regulate our everyday psychological and physical functions. When nerve cells fire a signal, neurotransmitters are released and attach to different receptors, triggering an action or another signal. Once they have completed their job, these chemical messengers are degraded or recycled via reuptake. 

There are over 100 discovered neurotransmitters. Here, we highlight a few that are important for regulating mental and emotional health. 

Dopamine

Dopamine has been coined the “motivation molecule,” as it regulates pleasure, reward, learning, behavior, and movement coordination. Due to its involvement in pleasure and reward, dopamine can be triggered by different drugs, which can be addictive. Low levels of dopamine can result in low energy, lack of motivation, and low libido. Dopamine deficiency can manifest as a lethargic and apathetic form of depression. In Parkinson’s disease, low levels of dopamine result in tremors and motor movement impairments. This is caused by the degeneration of dopamine-generating neurons in the brain. To increase dopamine, many people engage in addictive behaviors (i.e. shopping and gambling) and addictive substances (i.e. nicotine, alcohol, and recreational drugs). However, better ways to increase dopamine include consuming healthy foods and healthy activities. 

Ways to increase dopamine: 

Serotonin 

Known as the “happiness molecule,” serotonin is essential in sleep, mood, appetite, and anxiety. Low levels of serotonin result in anxiety, insomnia, digestive disorders, low libido, low self-esteem, and carbohydrate cravings. Low levels of serotonin is also linked with mood disorders: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD, seasonal affective disorder, and insomnia. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are antidepressant medications that balance serotonin levels in the brain. They work by preventing reuptake of serotonin by the presynaptic neuron, which is the neuron that fires the initial signal. As a result, more serotonin stays in the synapse, which is the junction and site of transmission between two nerve cells. This can help reduce anxiety and elevate mood. 

Ways to boost serotonin:

Epinephrine 

Epinephrine is also known as adrenaline. It is produced by the kidneys during times of stress, such as eustress (good) and distress (bad). Epinephrine increases heart rate and blood pressure. It allows for heightened awareness, attention, and focus. High levels of distress for a prolonged amount of time can lead to a weakened immune system and other health problems. 

Ways to alleviate stress: 

Endorphins

Endorphins are produced naturally by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in response to pain and vigorous exercise. Endorphins promote feelings of euphoria, improve self-esteem, reduce emotional stress, and enhance the immune system. There are over 20 different types of endorphins, in which beta-endorphins are the most intensively studied. Studies have shown that patients with fibromyalgia, which is a condition that causes chronic pain throughout the body, have lower levels of endorphins. As a result, they receive less pain relief when their bodies are strained and stressed. In addition, opioids drugs block the same pain receptors that endorphins block. This causes the person to increase their opioid dosage in order to feel good since their bodies’ natural endorphins become insufficient. Opioid overdose can result in respiratory depression and death. 

Ways to boost endorphins: 

Oxytocin 

Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone” due to its release during physical touch, social bonding, birth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin relieves stress. Postpartum depression and irregularities in social functioning have been linked to low levels of oxytocin. 

Ways to increase oxytocin:

 

 

Read more about Brain Awareness Week here.

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