Learn how this brain chemical works and why it’s important for your health.
What is GABA
GABA is the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter (Buzsaki et al., 2007). When GABA is released, it’s almost like pressing down on the brain’s brake pedals, slowing things down and limiting or preventing excessive neural activity. When GABA binds to a neuron, that neuron becomes less likely to generate an electrical impulse. The neuron then requires more contact with excitatory neurotransmitters to fire. This is a critically important job - too much brain activity can lead to several negative effects including seizures and convulsions. Some of these negative effects may irreparably damage brain cells, sometimes even leading to death.
GABA deficits and excessive brain activity have been implicated in serious degenerative brain disorders like Huntington's, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's diseases (Wong et al., 2003). Even when the effects of excessive brain activity aren’t deadly, they can still negatively impact health and well-being. For example, impaired GABA transmission and excessive brain activity may contribute to sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, ADHD, schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders. The inhibitory effects of GABA are necessary for a healthy, balanced, and well-functioning neural system.
As the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA is critically important to neural activity across the brain and plays a role in several different mental and cognitive processes. In the parts of the brain responsible for decision-making and cognition, higher concentrations of GABA are associated with better cognitive functioning in older adults (Porges et al., 2017). In the part of the brain responsible for visual perception and information processing, more GABA predicts better performance on a visual decision-making task (Edden et al., 2012). Similarly, in the part of the brain responsible for the coordination of movement, higher levels of GABA are associated with better performance on a tactile decision-making task (Puts et al., 2011). These results suggest that GABA is critically important to the healthy functioning of many different parts of the brain.
The Benefits of GABA
Impaired GABA functioning may be partially reversed by pharmacological or dietary interventions that increase GABA (Ngo & Vo., 2019). Some of the specific beneficial effects of increasing GABA may include:
It may seem counterintuitive that a chemical that slows down brain activity can be so important to a healthy and well-functioning neural system. Without the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA to prevent excessive neural activity, brain cells would fire excessively, leading to tremors, convulsions, seizures, and eventual cell death. Although less dramatic, excessive electrical activity in the brain may also result in insomnia, anxiety, depression, hypersensitivity, hyperactivity, and impaired cognitive functioning. The presence of GABA within the brain works to counteract some of these distressing effects of excessive neural excitability. A balance between excitation and inhibition of electrical impulses is key to a healthy neural system and GABA is one of the keys to this balance.
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Pamela (Pami) Parker currently serves as a holistic practitioner, coach and teacher. Her intention is to be a compassionate guide to those who choose to experience a healthier, happier and more peaceful way of life.