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What Factors Affect the Release of Neurotransmitters?

By Sandi Johnson
Updated May 17, 2024
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Neurotransmitters, the basis for a healthy nervous system, are the most important molecule in nearly every living thing, from humans to animals, birds to amphibians. The brain produces neurotransmitters to help control virtually every system in the body, using these tiny molecules to transmit information and instructions from one neuron to the next. Effective control of the nervous system means the brain needs enough neurotransmitters to transmit signals, and those signals must be transmitted accurately. Factors that affect the release of neurotransmitters are numerous, but the most common include genetics, eating habits, exposure to chemical substances, and in the case of humans, stress.

Brain cells known as neurons carry information and instructions through the nervous system to various cells and body systems via electrical impulses. Such impulses are known as action potentials. When an electrical impulse, or action potential, travels through to the end of a neuron, it causes the release of neurotransmitters. Those neurotransmitters carry the required information across to the next neuron through a gap between the neurons known as a synapse. If the body does not have enough of a particular type of neurotransmitter, the electrical impulse stops and information cannot traverse through the synapse and on to the next neuron.

Release of neurotransmitters involves a delicate balance of chemicals in the brain. Amino acids are required in order for the brain to produce the appropriate chemicals that make up neurotransmitters. Any medical condition, especially genetic abnormalities, that affects the intake and processing of amino acids can potentially affect the production of neurotransmitters and thus affect their release. Scientists do not fully understand every genetic factor that could potentially cause the failure of neurotransmitter release. Research shows, however, that conditions such as attention deficit disorder, autism, and other genetically linked disorders commonly present with imbalances in the level of neurotransmitters released by certain neurons.

Diet is another important factor in the release of neurotransmitters. Lack of protein in the diet, for example, results in an absence in the amino acids needed to produce neurotransmitters for later release. Likewise, diets low in omega-3 and other fatty acids have an impact on neurotransmission. Fatty acids are the primary building block for the membranes that surround neurons. Weak or overly thick membranes affect whether neurons are able to release neurotransmitters that can traverse cell walls and travel through the synapses.

Synthetic chemicals also affect the release of neurotransmitters, either intentionally or unintentionally. Doctors use medications known to affect the release of neurotransmitters when treating conditions such as depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. Many of these conditions are caused by excessive physical or emotional stress, resulting in abnormal neurotransmitter release that requires medical intervention. Exposure to other synthesized chemicals known as neurotoxins has a similar effect on neurotransmission, although usually with negative results. Industrial environments and chemical weapons are the most common source of hazardous neurotoxins with harmful effects on the release of neurotransmitters.

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