Neural networks, aka electro-chemical signaling process – are the brain and body’s communication system. The health of these networks is important to normal brain functioning and therefore emotional and physical health.
This new brain research is truly amazing and goes a long way to helping clinicians, medical professionals, addicts/alcoholics, family member & friends and the lay person understand how the brain goes together (develops), how it works, and how it unravels. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on three of the “pieces” that underpin all of what our brains can do and do — neural networks, neurotransmitters and receptors.
About Neural Networks
We are born with about 100 billion brain cells — billions of them — also known as neurons but only a relatively small fraction are ‘wired’ at birth. In fact, from birth through our early 20s, our brains are going through the critically important ‘wiring’ process known as brain development. [The brain continues to wire and re-wire as we age, but that’s a topic for another post.]
It is this wiring process that allows neurons to “talk” to one another via neural networks. Neural networks in the brain control everything we think, feel, say and do by talking with one another and to and from other neurons throughout the body via the nervous system.
A neural network requires requires:
- brain cells – neurons – general the “electrical” portion of the electro-chemical signaling process
- synapses – the gap between the branchlike extensions of brain cells
- neurotransmitters – the chemical messenger [the chemical portion of the electro-chemical signaling process] converts the electrical signal into something that can float the gap (the synapse) that takes a message from the end of one brain cell’s branchlike extension, across the synapse to bind to
receptors that receive the neurotransmitter “like a key in a door lock” on the receiving brain cell’s branchlike extension.
When neural networks repeatedly “fire together” – meaning to talk to one another – they “wire together” to form “brain maps.” (Norman Doidge, M.D. The Brain That Changes Itself) These brain maps become our habits, our rote behaviors [remember, everything we think, feel, say and do requires neural networks]. They are how we move through our day.
Over the course of our lives, we create brain maps for riding a bike or typing on a computer or talking on the phone or reading a book or running, breathing, reciting multiplication tables, eating, talking with our hands, misusing substances, coping with stress — everything! We also create them around addictions – but that’s a whole other post.
About Neurotransmitters and Receptors
Neurotransmitters and receptors are the keys to moving the electrical signal (message) from one neuron to another. In other words, they are the “something” that converts the electrical signal when it reaches the end of the outgoing branchlike extension on one neuron into a chemical that can cross the synapse (the gap between two neuron’s branchlike extensions) to bind to receptors on the receiving neuron’s branchlike extension, where it is converted back into an electrical signal to carry on the “message.” And notice the words, “bind to receptors.”
Receptors are what accept the neurotransmitter, like a “key in a door lock,” and convert the signal back into an electrical signal that can then travel up the axon (the incoming branchlike extension) to carry on the message to the receiving neuron. Each neurotransmitter has a specific type of receptor that can only accept that particular neurotransmitter.
There are five primary neurotransmitters in the brain [and please understand this is a very BASIC explanation]:
Dopamine is our “feel good” neurotransmitter — in other words, it’s the one that connects the neurons responsible for motivation, interest and drive; the neural networks in the brain’s “pleasure/reward” system.
Serotonin is key to our moods, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation and some social behavior.
Norepinephrine works with the neural networks responsible for our sense of well-being.
Glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain –the accelerator, if you will.
GABA (Gamma amino butyric acid) GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter — the brakes.
What Throws Neurotransmitters | Receptors Out of Balance?
Given neurotransmitters and receptors are two of the keys to successful, healthy neural networks in the brain, understanding what can change their levels can be key to a person’s understanding of what they might do to “heal” their brain or to protect it in order to feel better and thereby change their behaviors. Here are a few:
Genetics – some people are born with higher or lower levels of one or more neurotransmitters and/or receptors for a specific neurotransmitter. For this, a person may take medications that increase or inhibit specific neurotransmitters.
Metabolism – a faulty metabolism can impair how nutrients important to the cells that produce neurotransmitters. For this a person might wrest control of their diabetes or increase their exercise levels in order to increase their metabolism.
Nutrition – the body “makes” neurotransmitters from proteins and certain vitamins and minerals. When a person’s nutrition is poor (aka, they don’t eat a healthy, nutritionally balanced diet), their body cannot make the healthy levels of neurotransmitters needed for healthy neural networks. For this, a person might eat a healthier diet — the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a website, Choose My Plate, to help people customize a diet to meet their specific body needs.
Toxic Substances – the chemicals in drugs, alcohol, pesticides and other substances taken at a toxic level SEVERELY harm the production of neurotransmitters in the brain or they bind to receptors, but not as intended. Thus they change how neural networks work. These changes can change a person’s thought, feelings, and behaviors. For this, a person might reduce the amount of alcohol they consume, restrict their drug use to only those prescribed under the care of a medical doctor, and/or find a treatment program that may help them recover from an addiction.
Hormonal Changes – such as those caused by conditions affecting the thyroid, adrenal, male and female sex hormones, for example, can cause neurotransmitter imbalances. For this, a complete physical with one’s doctor can help identify any problem areas and what courses of action may be taken to correct them.
Health Conditions – such as a head injury or mental illness or a sugar imbalance or the stress associated with secondhand drinking | drugging — anything that interrupts the brain’s natural ability to produce neurotransmitters, maintain, balance neurotransmitters. For this — especially a head injury or mental illness — a person should seek the help of a trained professional (neurologist, psychiatrist or psychologist, for example).
There is a great deal we can do to heal our brains and to protect our brain health overall. The place to start is with understanding the importance of neurotransmitters to a neural network and then doing what we can to keep those neurotransmitters producing / working at optimum levels.
Here’s to brain health!