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Explanations > Brains > Brain Chemistry > Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitter function | Types of neurotransmitter | Neurotransmitter systems | See also


Neurotransmitters are critical components of the transmission system between neurons.


Neurotransmitters are produced in neurons by the action of synthetic enzymes on precursor substances.

Neurotransmitter function

When a neuron 'fires', neurotransmitters are released from vesicules in the pre-synaptic terminal buttons (of the firing neuron) and travel across the synapse to the post-synaptic membrane (of the target neuron) where they dock with postsynaptic receptors where they act to open particular ion channels that allows in ions and so trigger or inhibit an action potential in the postsypnaptic neuron, thus propagating or preventing a chain of neural firing. In this way we think and feel, and the functions of our body are controlled.

After use, neurotransmitters are either re-absorbed and re-used, or destroyed, either by special chemical or after transport to the liver or kidneys. 

Types of neurotransmitter

There is a wide range of neurotransmitters, although relatively few are of major interest in many cases.

Small-molecule neurotransmitters

These neurotransmitters are perhaps those which are most commonly discussed.


Family Name Abbrev. Function
(none) Acetylcholine ACh Motor
Monoamines Norepinephrine NA  
Dopamine DA Reward +
Seratonin 5-HT Mood, sleep, temperature
Epinephrine Epi  
Amino acids Glutamate   Brain excitation
Gamma-aminobutyric acid GABA Brain inhibition
Glycine Gly or G Spinal cord inhibition
Purines Adenosine    


Other neurotransmitters

In addition to the small molecule neurotransmitters, there are a number of additional molecules that act as neurotransmitters.

Here are brief notes about a few:

In more detail, this would include:


Family Name Abbrev. Function
Gastrins Gastrin    
  Cholecystokinin CCK  
Neuropeptide Y Neuropeptide Y NY  
  Pancreatic polypeptide PP  
  Peptide YY PYY  
Opioids Corticotropin ACTH  
Secretins Secretin    
  Vasoactive intestinal peptide    
  Growth hormone-releasing factor GRF  
Somtostatins Somtostatin    
Tachykinins Neurokinin A    
  Neurokinin B    
  Substance P    


Other molecules that get released into the synapse and are sometimes considered as neurotransmitters include zinc ions and gases nitric oxide and carbon monoxide.


Neurotransmitter systems

There are a number of systems or 'circuits' which activate a large area of the brain at once in volume transmission. An effect of this is that drugs targeting the key neurotransmitter get to affect the whole system in one go.


System Pathway Function
Norepinephrine Locus coeruleus Arousal and reward
Dopamine system Mesocortical pathway

Mesolimbic pathway

Nigrostriatal pathway

Tuberoinfundibular pathway

Motor system, reward, thinking, nausea
Seratonin system Dorsal raphe nucleus Mood, satiation, sleep, pain reduction
Cholinergic system   Learning, short-term memory, arousal, reward


See also


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