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Fraser Trevor Fraser Trevor Author
Title: The neurotransmitter serotonin has been called the "happy neurotransmitter" by brain researchers.
Author: Fraser Trevor
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FUNCTION The brain is made up of millions of neurons, or brain cells, which are specialized cells designed to communicate informa...


The brain is made up of millions of neurons, or brain cells, which are specialized cells designed to communicate information. To communicate as efficiently as possible, neurons produce and release chemicals called neurotransmitters into spaces between neurons called synapses. In her book "Human Physiology," Dr. Lauralee Sherwood says that while serotonin is in a neural synapse, it bathes the nerves adjacent to that synapse with messages of happiness and contentment.

Generally, serotonin, like other neurotransmitters, doesn't stay in a neural synapse for long. The nerve cell that released it can take it back up again, to recycle and reuse at a later time. Enzymes called monoamine oxidases also work to break down serotonin in synapses. Sherwood says that normally, individuals have high enough levels of serotonin that this reuptake and breakdown doesn't affect overall feelings of well-being. In individuals with low serotonin levels, however, the two removal mechanisms work efficiently relative to serotonin production, leading to fast removal of the chemical from synapses and a reduced effect from serotonin.


The effects of serotonin on the body are to help the brain function normally. An individual with normal serotonin secretion feels happy when conditions allow and can feel other emotions when circumstances aren't appropriate to happiness. Low levels of serotonin lead to affect, or mood, disorders. In their book "Biochemistry," Drs. Reginald Garrett and Charles Grisham say that low serotonin is associated with feelings of depression and anxiety. Excessively high serotonin, on the other hand, can cause sleepiness and inhibition of normal mood elevation and depression.


There are many who think that it's possible to manipulate serotonin levels in the brain to a significant degree. The "Thanksgiving Day coma," for instance, in which individuals feel sleepy after eating a large turkey meal, was once attributed to high levels of tryptophan in turkey. Drs. Mary Campbell and Shawn Farrell say that tryptophan is what the brain uses to make serotonin. Almost all protein, however, contains tryptophan, and while turkey is no exception, it's not particularly high in the chemical. Sleepiness after Thanksgiving dinner is more likely due to blood flow to the gut for digestive purposes than it is to serotonin.


While it may not be possible to adjust serotonin levels to any significant extent with food, pharmaceuticals certainly have the ability to increase levels in the brain. Some serotonin-increasing drugs reduce the ability of the enzyme monoamine oxidase to function, while others prevent neurons from taking up serotonin from synapses as quickly. Either way, Sherwood says, serotonin remains in the synapse for a longer time as a result. In patients with low serotonin, this produces normal mood or affect. In patients with normal serotonin, this would lead to symptoms of excessive serotonin, including sleepiness.

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