Brain Chemistry (Neurochemistry)

Brain Chemistry Neurochemistry 2330
Photo by: Elena Pankova

The brain communicates with itself by sending out chemical information from one neuron, or nerve cell to another. Brain chemistry is the sum of all the chemical messaging that takes place in the brain, which allows it to carry out its daily functions, such as generating movement, speaking, thinking, listening, regulating the systems of the body, and countless others.

Out of Balance: Hector's Story

Now a tenth-grader, Hector had been experiencing severe depression since he was in seventh grade. Everyone feels down or depressed every now and then, but Hector felt this way most of the time. He had a hard time making friends, he was not interested in his schoolwork, and he spent most of his time hanging out in his room alone. He had even thought about suicide. At first, his parents believed that this was just a phase he was going through, but then they became really concerned. What was happening to their son, who had been generally upbeat and friendly until a few years earlier?

At the insistence of his parents and teachers, Hector started seeing a psychiatrist * , who tried to help him talk about what he was feeling. Based on her meetings with Hector, she decided to prescribe a type of medication known as an antidepressant. This medication increases the amount of a brain neurotransmitter * called serotonin (ser-ah-TO-nin), which is associated with feelings of well-being and control. The medicine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), works by preventing (inhibiting) neurons from reabsorbing (reuptaking) the chemical messenger serotonin once it is released into the brain. As a result, there is more serotonin available, and this sometimes helps alleviate the symptoms of depression. If Hector's depression were being caused by too little serotonin, the medication likely would help him.

Sure enough, it did. Hector continued to see his psychiatrist while taking the medication. After about 6 months, his doctor decided to try taking Hector off the SSRI. Hector was afraid that his terrible feelings would return, but they did not. He found that talking through any problems with his doctor was enough to keep him on track.

A Cascade of Chemicals

Every day, researchers are learning more about the chemicals that the neurons (NUR-ons) in the human brain use to communicate with each other. They now know that all the feelings and emotions that people experience are produced through chemical changes in the brain. The "rush" of happiness that a person feels at getting a good grade on a test, winning the lottery, or reuniting with a loved one occur through complex chemical processes. So are emotions, such as sadness, grief, and stress. When the brain tells the body to do something, such as to sit down or run, this also sets a chemical process in motion. These "chemical communicators," or neurotransmitters, are the "words" that make up the language of the brain and the entire nervous system.

The billions of tiny neurons in the brain communicate with each other across small spaces called synapses (SIN-ap-siz). When one neuron is charged into action, it releases its chemical messenger, which then moves across the synapse to the next neuron, where it is accepted by a special receiving area, called a receptor, on the surface of the neuron. The chemical will be accepted only by receptors that recognize it, in a kind of "lock and key" system, that is, certain keys work only in certain locks. Once attached to a receptor site on another neuron, different neurotransmitters either trigger "go" signals that prompt the neuron to pass certain messages on to other cells or produce "stop" signals that prevent certain messages from being forwarded. (For an illustration of how neurotransmitters work, see "Medications.")

* psychiatrist refers to a medical doctor who has completed specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Psychiatrists diagnose mental illnesses, provide mental health counseling, and can prescribe medications.

* neurotransmifter (NUR-o-tranz-mit-er) is a brain chemical that lets brain cells communicate with each other and therefore allows the brain to function properly. In other words, a neurotransmitter transmits (carries) a chemical message from neuron to neuron.

Any one neuron may be receiving many chemical messages, both positive and negative (stop and go), from the other neurons surrounding it. These neurotransmitters may be "competing" to get the neuron to respond in different ways, or they may work together to produce a certain effect. Since all of this happens within a split second, the neurotransmitter must be cleared away quickly so that the same receptors can be activated again and again. This clearing away can happen in one of three ways. The chemical may be pumped back into the nerve ending it comes from, a process known as "reuptake," it may be destroyed by enzymes * near the receptor sites, or it may simply spread out into the surrounding area of the brain and be destroyed there.

Modifying Neurotransmission with Drugs

Many neurological (nur-a-LA-je-kal) conditions, ranging from emotional disorders, such as depression, to movement disorders, such as Parkinson disease, are associated with imbalances of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Researchers have been able to develop many medications that work to correct these imbalances, improving people's symptoms and helping them lead more fulfilling lives. At the same time, many legal and illegal drugs, such as the nicotine in cigarettes and the street drugs heroin and cocaine, work by changing neurotransmitter levels. People report feeling "good" or "up" when they start taking these drugs, but soon the neurons in their brains become so accustomed to the change in chemical balance that it takes more of a drug to get that same feeling, and the brain starts to crave the substance. The result is chemical dependency or addiction. What happens when brain chemicals are modified is described in the three examples of neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid) below.


Many studies have linked low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin to depression, impulsive and aggressive forms of behavior, violence, and even suicide. The class of medications called SSRIs, like the one that was given to Hector, prevents the neurons that release this chemical from taking it back in once it is in the synapse. As a result, the person has more serotonin available to attach to receptors in the brain, which can ease the symptoms of depression, as it did for Hector.

* enzymes are natural substances that cause or speed up specific chemical reactions in living organisms, like the human body.

Up for Debate:
Medicating Mental and
Behavioral Disorders

Depression, social anxiety, excessive shyness, and hyperactivity are just some of the conditions that might be treated successfully with medications that alter neurotransmitter levels in the brain. Before these medications became available, people with these and other problems either had to live with them or worked with a psychiatrist or psychologist to deal with their feelings. Now we know that brain chemistry disorders can be treated, allowing more people to overcome much of their social difficulty.

Some experts fear that we are beginning to rely too heavily on these medications as a "quick fix." While the experts do not deny that there are some people who need drug treatment, they also argue that there are people who think that feeling down or socially awkward occasionally is the same thing as having a disorder. These people then ask their doctors for medications that should be reserved for people who are truly distressed. When symptoms interfere with a person's life to a large extent, medication is considered. In most cases, while medications can help to decrease symptoms, more complete and long-lasting relief is achieved through therapy that helps with behavior change. Normal variations in feelings in response to life's changes and challenges are to be expected. Other forms of intervention, such as behavioral therapy and exercise, should be considered as alternatives to medication or in addition to medication when symptoms create suffering and present undue difficulties.

One of the hottest debates surrounds a condition known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which usually is diagnosed in childhood. Children with this condition have a hard time paying attention and sitting still, and they tend to be impulsive and overactive. More and more children are being diagnosed with ADHD, and many of them are taking medications that enhance the activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This helps the child be more alert, more focused, and therefore better able to stay "on task."

While most children (70 to 80 percent) with ADHD are helped by medication, some experts believe that some parents and doctors may be too hasty in labeling children with a diagnosis ofADHD to justify what is simply bad behavior and then medicating children who do not really need to be given drugs. They believe that medicine might be leading some parents and children away from other, potentially more helpful therapies. Others feel that children with ADHD have been under-diagnosed for many years and only more recently are being appropriately diagnosed and treated. There are no easy solutions to this problem, and the mental health and medical communities likely will be debating this issue for years to come.

An illegal drug known as "Ecstasy," or MDMA, also changes the level of serotonin in the brain, but much more radically. It causes the serotonin-releasing neurons to dump their contents all at once, which floods the brain with the chemical and produces feelings of extreme happiness and hyperactivity (excessive activity). This feeling comes with a price. Since Ecstasy uses up the brain's supply of serotonin, the person is likely to feel depressed when the immediate "rush" of the drug's effects ends after a few hours. This "down" period lasts until the brain can build its supply of serotonin back up to normal levels. Repeated use of Ecstasy may lead to depression or other problems over time, since the neurons can "bounce back" only so often.


Neurons in the core of the brain release dopamine (DO-pa-meen), a neurotransmitter that affects processes that control movement, emotional response, and the ability to experience pleasure and pain. In people who have Parkinson disease, dopamine-transmitting neurons in this area of the brain die, which causes progressive loss of movement control. A medication called L-DOPA, which the brain can convert into dopamine, often helps control these symptoms. Some researchers have theorized that people with the mental disorder known as schizophrenia * are, in fact, overly sensitive to the dopamine in their brains. Some of these people seem to have been helped by medications that block dopamine receptors in the brain, thereby limiting the neurotransmitter's effect.

Another class of drugs known as amphetamines (am-FET-a-meenz) work by increasing the level of dopamine that neurons release and then preventing them from taking it back in through the reuptake process. These drugs have medical uses, such as the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but some people misuse amphetamines to help themselves stay awake or perform a task better.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid

Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is the main neurotransmitter that works to inhibit the brain's neurons from acting. Research suggests that certain types of epilepsy, which is characterized by recurring seizures that affect a person's awareness and movements, may be the result of having too little GABA in the brain. The neuronal messaging system goes into overdrive, with tens of thousands of neurons sending messages intensely and simultaneously, which produces a seizure. Researchers believe that enzymes may be responsible for breaking down too much GABA, and they have developed medications that appear to help combat this process.

Hormones: Another Piece of the Brain
Chemistry Puzzle

Norepinephrine (nor-e-pi-NE-frin) is a neurotransmitter that is involved in various arousal systems in the brain (systems that bring about alertness and attention) and in the sympathetic nervous system * . In the sympathetic nervous system, it is norepinephrine that causes the blood vessels to narrow, raising blood pressure, and speeds the breathing and heart rates. Norepi-nephrine also functions as a hormone when it is released by the adrenal glands located just above the kidneys, with similar results. Norepinephrine, epinephrine, and other hormones produced by the adrenal gland are involved in the "fight or flight" response of the body to stress.

* schizophrenia (skitz-o-FREE-neeah) is one of a large group of mental disorders in which a person loses touch with reality an d is no longer able to think an d ac t normally. People with this disorder may hear voices or see things that are not really there.

* sympathetic nervous system is the system of nerves that prepares the body for action by speeding up the heart and breathing rates and raising the blood pressure.

Hormones are chemical substances that are sent into the bloodstream by the endocrine * (EN-do-krin) glands found throughout the body. They carry messages that produce certain effects in the body, much as the nerv-ous system neurotransmitters do. In fact, there are many substances like norepinephrine that function both as neurotransmitters and hormones. This reflects the close relationship between these two body regulation systems. The brain plays an important role in regulating the release of hormones, and if hormone levels get out of balance (as neurotransmitter levels sometimes do), it can have an impact on how the brain functions and therefore on how a person feels.

* endocrine refers to the network of glands and other body tissues that produce and release(secrete) hormones into the bloodstream, where they travel to other parts of the body and act as chemical messengers.

See also
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Brain and Nervous System (Introduction)



Powledge, Tabitha M. Your Brain: How You Got It and How It Works. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.

Novitt-Moreno, Anne. How Your Brain Works. Emeryville, CA: ZiffDavis Press, 1995.


The website Neuroscience for Kids is a great resource for kids and teens about brain chemistry, structure, and function. It provides other resources and links as well.

Nemours Center for Children's Health Media, Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington, DE 19803. This organization is dedicated to issues of children's health and produces the KidsHealth website. Its website has articles about the brain, emotions, and behavior.

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