An Overview of Neurotransmitters and Mental Health During Brain Awareness Week

Brain Awareness Week is March 12-18. The annual event focuses attention on the importance of the brain and the work of partner organizations around the world. Activities run the gamut from exhibitions about the brain to brain-themed lectures to open house events at neuroscience labs. There are also special displays at libraries and community gathering places, classroom workshops and other events. The goal is to engage people of all ages and provide information on this most important of organs and one we too often take for granted. It’s also an excellent time for providers of mental health services to share insights on how the workings of the brain affect mental health.

March is also National Nutrition Month. Organized by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the focus of this observance is nutrition education that helps people make informed food choices and develop positive eating and exercise habits. The 2018 theme is "Go Further with Food." For mental health services providers, the coinciding of these two celebrations leads naturally into a conversation about how physical health—in particular brain neurotransmitters—comes into play with mental illness.

What are Neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that are released when a nerve impulse reaches the end of a nerve fiber. The substance then makes its way across a gap called a synapse to another nerve, continuing the propagation of the impulse. This mechanism is used throughout the body, including in the brain. There are many different kinds of neurotransmitters. Some of the most important in brain and body functioning include:

  • Serotonin. This chemical affects many functions including, sleep, appetite and mood. People with depression often have lower than normal levels of serotonin. Some depression medications work by blocking the reuptake of serotonin, leaving more of it in the synapse to promote mood elevation.
  • Glutamate. This is the most common neurotransmitter. It “primes” neurons to fire when appropriate. Disorders like depression, schizophrenia, autism and obsessive compulsive disorder may be the result of problems with the production or use of glutamate.
  • Dopamine. This neurotransmitter is used to manage the flow of impulses occurring in the front of the brain where movement is controlled. That area also plays a role in emotion and thought. Some research suggests that a dopamine deficiency can play a part in conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia.

Problems with neurotransmitter production or use are conditions that a psychiatrist, psychologist or clinical social worker can help you identify. At that point, there are different forms of treatment, including counseling or “talk therapy” and medication, that can be used to help minimize the symptoms of the condition. These treatments can be highly effective.

Give Some Thought to Brain Awareness Week

Brain Awareness Week and National Nutrition Month are excellent reminders to pay attention to the mind/body connection and to take steps to care for your mental, emotional and physical health. If you have questions about our mental health services, contact us online at communityreachcenter.org or by phone at 303-853-3500 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. We have centers in the northside Denver metro area of Adams County including the cities of Thornton, Westminster, Northglenn, Commerce City and Brighton.