What Is the Definition of a Neurotransmitter?

What do these chemical messengers do?

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What is the definition of a neurotransmitter? We all have these chemical messengers that play a vital role in the body, but that doesn't mean we understand their significance. Improve your understanding of neurotransmitters and their relationship to addiction with this review and examples. 

How Neurotransmitters Work

Simply put, neurotransmitters are chemicals produced by the body that send signals between nerve cells or "neurons." According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the brain has a staggering 100 billion neurons.

The brain passes information from one neuron to another by using electricity and neurotransmitters.

Several neurotransmitters have a direct effect on mood, arousal and relaxation. They also have an influence on the reward system of the brain.

The Impact of Addiction on Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters are affected by addictive substances and behaviors and have an important function in the development and maintenance of addictions, including behavioral addictions. Examples of these addictions include sex, gambling and eating addictions. Examples of neurotransmitters that are known to have a role in the process of addiction are dopamine, serotonin, GABA, adrenalin and noradrenalin.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has a positive effect on rewarding feelings -- a cocaine user experiences pleasure partly because of the way cocaine affects the transmission of dopamine in the brain. Alcohol also has an affect on dopamine transmission, which is associated with focus and drive in addition to pleasure.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse posits that almost all drugs that are commonly abused have an effect, either directly or indirectly, on dopamine.

But alcohol, drugs and other substances aren't the only things that have an effect on dopamine. Healthy behaviors such as exercise, which can become an addiction in excess, also has a positive effect on rewarding feelings.

Physical activity can promote transmission of dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters. This is why people with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety are often advised to exercise to counter their negative feelings.

Neurotransmitters and Mental Health Problems

Abnormalities or dysregulation of neurotransmitters are also implicated in many mental health problems, and drugs that are used to treat mental health problems often work by affecting neurotransmitters.

Prozac, an antidepressant, works by affecting the transmission of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which has a positive effect on mood. If you have a mental health condition such as depression and need medication to manage it, you'll likely be given medication that works the same way as Prozac. 

Wrapping Up

If you suffer from addictive behaviors or a mental health condition, understanding how neurotransmitters work won't remedy your condition. However, having a scientific understanding of how neurotransmitters affect mood can help you to become more mindful of your feelings. Rather than feeling shame, discomfort or powerlessness when you feel a certain way, you can simply observe that the way you feel is a part of a biochemical process.

This can not only lead to you feeling more in control of your feelings but more certain that all of your feelings, the highs and lows, will pass in time and can be managed.