The Human Body

Neurotransmitter

Neurotransmitter, chemical made by neurons, or nerve cells. Neurons send out neurotransmitters as chemical signals to activate or inhibit the function of neighboring cells.

Within the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and the spinal cord, neurotransmitters pass from neuron to neuron. In the peripheral nervous system, which is made up of the nerves that run from the central nervous system to the rest of the body, the chemical signals pass between a neuron and an adjacent muscle or gland cell.

Nine chemical compounds—belonging to three chemical families—are widely recognized as neurotransmitters. In addition, certain other body chemicals, including adenosine, histamine, enkephalins, endorphins, and epinephrine, have neurotransmitterlike properties. Experts believe that there are many more neurotransmitters as yet undiscovered.

The first of the three families is composed of amines, a group of compounds containing molecules of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Among the amine neurotransmitters are acetylcholine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. Acetylcholine is the most widely used neurotransmitter in the body, and neurons that leave the central nervous system (for example, those running to skeletal muscle) use acetylcholine as their neurotransmitter; neurons that run to the heart, blood vessels, and other organs may use acetylcholine or norepinephrine. Dopamine is involved in the movement of muscles, and it controls the secretion of the pituitary hormone prolactin, which triggers milk production in nursing mothers.

The second neurotransmitter family is composed of amino acids, organic compounds containing both an amino group (NH2) and a carboxylic acid group (COOH). Amino acids that serve as neurotransmitters include glycine, glutamic and aspartic acids, and gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA). Glutamic acid and GABA are the most abundant neurotransmitters within the central nervous system, and especially in the cerebral cortex, which is largely responsible for such higher brain functions as thought and interpreting sensations.

The third neurotransmitter family is composed of peptides, which are compounds that contain at least 2, and sometimes as many as 100 amino acids. Peptide neurotransmitters are poorly understood, but scientists know that the peptide neurotransmitter called substance P influences the sensation of pain.

In general, each neuron uses only a single compound as its neurotransmitter. However, some neurons outside the central nervous system are able to release both an amine and a peptide neurotransmitter.