There are many ways to understand mental life. One of the most interesting is through its chemistry. And neurotransmitters are the primary reason behind it.

Mental Life - Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters: the Chemistry of Mental Life

Mental life stills a mystery. Even when we are mental life, it stills we didn’t know all about it. But somehow, scientists explained at least the most interesting aspects of mental life. For that reason, according to each science and its researches, we can get to know different aspects. Some of us might understand mental life as a construct, or even as a combination of processes. But thanks to neurology, we have a more chemical way to understand mental life.

The human brain is one of the major body organs, in which the production of chemical reactions occurs. That allows the brain to be the center of the body. So that chemistry is a way to explain mental life. Because the neurotransmitters are the base for all the mental functions, here are some aspects of the chemistry behind mental life.

Understanding Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters allow connection between the brain itself but also between the brain and  body.
Neurotransmitters allow connection between the brain itself, but also between the brain and body

Neurotransmitters are chemicals, but these chemicals have a specific and key role in the body. Their role is to carry and deliver messages. So, we can call neurotransmitters as messengers. But what do they carry and deliver? Well, neurotransmitters carry and deliver signals between cells, mainly neurons.

Neurotransmitters (NTs) are endogenous chemical messengers which neurons use to communicate with each other, to act on muscle cells or to stimulate a response by glandular cells. NTs play an important role in many of the brain functions, such as behavior and cognition, cardiovascular, renal, and hormonal functions systems along with establishing human brain-body integration. They affect and control heart rate and muscle tone, as well as adjustment of learning, sleeping, memory, consciousness, mood and appetite.

Zahra Tavakolian-Arkadani et al. (2019). Latest Trends in Electrochemical Sensors for Neurotransmitters: A Review.

In that order of ideas, let’s explain what neurons are. Neurons are the nervous system’s cells. But these cells are special! Neurons are electrically excitable cells. In that way, neurons communicate with other neurons. But they are not connected; there is a gap between one neuron and the next one. So their communication is through signals carried by neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters and Signals

Neurotransmitters are key to make the signals go from one neuron to another
Neurotransmitters are key to make the signals go from one neuron to another

Neurotransmitters have extensive coverage. Because they also carry and deliver messages between neurons and other cells ” target cells”. Those target cells are the neuromuscular junctions and glands. That is how neurotransmitters connect mental life with physical life.

In that way, thanks to neurotransmitters, neurons fire nerve impulses. Well, those impulses start a chain reaction that controls not only the body’s organs but also mental life. Because neurotransmitters also control psychological constructs as mood, learning, among others.

So, let’s summarize this part: Neurotransmitters are messengers that carry and deliver signals. They allow communication between neurons themselves. But also, neurotransmitters carry and deliver signals to target cells on the rest of the body. Now, how do they work?

How Neurotransmitters Work

Neurotransmitters are messengers, they carry and deliver signals
Neurotransmitters are messengers; they carry and deliver signals

Neurotransmitters are synthesized and stored in the neuron. So, to explain how they work, I will start by explaining the neuron’s structure. Neurons are divided into three main parts:

  • Dendrites, Body, and Axon. Dendrites are the top of the neuron; their function is to receive messages or signals.
  • The body contains a series of structures that control the neuron and generate the impulse.
  • While the Axon is the final part, and on its bottom is where neurotransmitters are stored and released.

So, to explain how neurotransmitters work, we need to keep those parts of the neuron on the mind. Another thing to remember is that neurons are not connected. There is a gap or a space between the axon of one neuron and the dendrites from the next one. That is why neurotransmitters are essential to make the signals go from one neuron to another. And that junction between neurons is known as the synapse.

A central mechanism of neuronal communication involves the release of neurotransmitters that bind to specialized receptors on the target cell, changing its activity… Neurons synthesize these neurotransmitters and package them in vesicles that typically are localized at the ends of projections known as axons. Neuronal activation causes the release of neurotransmitters from the axonal terminals onto branch-like projections in adjacent neurons, which are called dendrites. Dendrites contain small thorn-like protrusions known as dendritic spines. Axonal terminals and dendritic spines meet at specialized points of contact, called synapses, which mediate a significant portion of information exchange between neurons.

Valenzuela, Puglia, and Zucca. (2011). Focus On: Neurotransmitter Systems.
Neurons' structure
Neurons’ structure Image by Ajimonthomas from Wikimedia Commons

In that way, the synapse is the place where the process occurs and neurotransmitters work. Synapse is divided into the following three main components:

  • The pre-synaptic side: It’s the last part of a first neuron that occurs in the axon terminal. It’s the place where neurotransmitters are stored and released from.
  • The synaptic cleft: It’s the gap between neurons, where neurotransmitters are released in.
  • The post-synaptic side: It’s the first part of a second neuron that occurs in the dendrites. It’s the place where the neurotransmitters bind to their receptors within target cells.

Neurotransmitters and Mental Life

Mental Life - Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are released from one neuron into the gap and recaptured by the next neuron from there

So, after getting to know neurotransmitters from a short and straightforward vision, why they form the mental life chemistry. The mental life goes through the interaction of the nervous system with stimulus factors. The nervous system catches and responds to stimulus factors using neurotransmitters. So, they form the mental life chemistry.

That is why neurotransmitters are key in mental life constructs, like moods and learning. Because they connect the parts needed, and that chain process brings mental processes to life. In that way, without neurotransmitters, most mental processes would not exist. Also, they control other processes in the body, such as breathing and heartbeat.

According to Bucher and Wightman, neurotransmitters’ role and impact on the mind and rest of the body can be seen on their dysregulation and downstream:

The downstream effects of neurotransmission underlie a wide range of physiological and behavioral processes and its dysregulation can lead to a number of debilitating disorders as broad as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and drug addiction

Bucher and Wightman (2016). Electrochemical Analysis of Neurotransmitter.

So, thanks to neurotransmitters, we are able not only to process the stimulus we get from the environment. But also to learn, remember, and respond to those stimuli. Even when they don’t make the entire process, neurotransmitters have a key role in mental life. Without their carry and deliver signals, we could not even have thoughts or images.

Since this topic is extensive and complex, we just put the first step to start on it. We are starting with neurotransmitters, the tiniest part in this entire universe. But there is so much more to know. See you soon!