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Neurotransmitters: Can They Determine Our Personality?

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Attitude and personality are topics that are quite controversial in areas such as psychology and social sciences. When you were young, you’ve probably heard your parents or other people attribute certain traits, irks in your personality, and attitude to the environment. Sometimes you hear them say, “You got it from your mom.” You hardly hear them say, “Oh it’s your neurotransmitters that are giving you an interesting personality!”

Indeed, your environment plays a huge part in shaping your attitude, your outlook in life, and your personality. But do know that science can somehow blame it on neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters do play a part in shaping human attitude and personality. External factors such as the community, environment, family, education, friends, among others, cannot be disregarded as highly influential factors in shaping human personality. But, let us dig deeper on how neurotransmitters play a part in dictating how we project ourselves outwardly.

What are Neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are biologically derived chemicals within the body that enable neurotransmission. They are considered chemical messengers that transmit chemical synapses from one neuron or nerve cell to another particular neuron. There are over 100 endogenous neurotransmitters. However, there is no exact figure as to how many chemical messengers or neurotransmitters have been identified.

To put it simply, neurotransmitters communicate sensation, thinking, and act as a messenger to voluntary and involuntary thought, hormonal, or sensory process in the body. It allows communication from one nerve to another the way electrical circuits are synced in a house. However, unlike electrical wires, the neurons do not touch each other.  Instead, neurotransmitters work as a messenger from the axon of a presynaptic cell to the dendrite of a postsynaptic cell. This process goes on until it reaches its target cell or tissue. Although it takes perhaps billions of cells for this mechanism, it takes just about a millisecond and we do not even realize the complex process it undergoes. It is directly or indirectly responsible for the function and control of virtually every tissue and system in the body. Hormonal balance and secretion are influenced by major and minor neurotransmitters. Imbalance of neurotransmitters, caused by stress, genetic makeup, poor diet, impairs hormonal balance.

The simplest example of a neurotransmitter in action is this. When you close your eyes and someone touches your hand, how does your brain know that someone touched it? This process of communicating a sensation is caused by neurotransmitters. By this example, you can see how it happens even faster than the blink of an eye.

Fluctuating levels of neurotransmitters can cause mood swings, low libido, lack or excess of energy, unwanted acne, depression and other sensitivities or insensitivities. Let us take a look at a few characteristics of neurotransmitters that the body commonly uses.

Examples of Neurotransmitters

Dopamine

Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter that regulates motor behavior, pleasure, emotional arousal, and motivation. It affects movement, attention, learning, reinforcement, pleasure, and the reward system of the brain. People with schizophrenia have been found to have high levels of dopamine. On the other hand, people with Parkinson’s disease have been linked to having lower levels of dopamine.

Epinephrine

A neurotransmitter also synthesized from tyrosine, epinephrine takes part in controlling the adrenal glands. It affects sleep, alertness, metabolism of glucose, energy release during exercise. It has also an effect on adrenaline secretion and determines one’s fight-or-flight response.

Norepinephrine

Synthesized from tyrosine, norepinephrine focuses on the central nervous system. Levels of this neurotransmitter affect sleep patterns, focus, eating, alertness, and wakefulness.

Serotonin

A monoamine neurotransmitter, 90% of serotonin is predominantly found and produced in the intestines. The rest of it can be found in the central nervous system. Serotonin functions by regulating sleep, mood, appetite, memory, learning, behavior, temperature, impulsivity, muscle contraction, and aggression. Theories have emerged that it has a role in the cardiovascular and endocrine systems, as well as a role in depression. A significantly lower concentration of metabolites of serotonin in the cerebrospinal and brain tissue has been found among those who suffer depression.  

Glutamate

Glutamate is a neurotransmitter responsible for several fast excitatory synapses in the brain and spinal cord. Some synapses that are modifiable such as increasing or decreasing strength are also linked to levels of glutamate. It is active in areas of the brain involved in thought, learning, and emotion. Excess release of glutamate can overstimulate the brain and potentially cause excitotoxicity resulting in cell death – a cause of strokes and seizures.  

GABA

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means that it facilitates fast neural inhibitory synapses in the central nervous system. Several sedatives or tranquilizers function as they do by enhancing the effect of GABA resulting to calmness, relaxation and sleep.

Looking at the list of a few of the commonly known neurotransmitters, we can draw some insight. There are several causes of neurotransmitter imbalance. Stress, genetics, poor diet, and medication are a few causes of certain changes when it comes to the production of these neurotransmitters. However, when we discuss this in relation to attitude and personality, can we draw a direct link between neurotransmitters and how it affects our attitudes and personalities?

Neurotransmitters and Behavior

Theoretically, given the facts aforementioned, if neurotransmitter imbalance is caused by external factors that may vary over time, neurotransmitter may fluctuate and cause certain changes in the mood, behavior, disposition, calmness, and appetite. However, if neurotransmitter levels or imbalance is caused by genetics, that is totally a different story. This could translate to being born with that personality or having a chronic disorder. Genetic makeup is something that one carries within one’s lifetime, thus, it can be hard and almost impossible to change. If your genes are predisposed to produce more GABA, you are generally calm for most situations. And if you are low in dopamine, the feel-good hormone, it is easy for you to get depressed but if you have heightened levels of dopamine, you can be somewhat psychotic. This is quite important to note as in the course of some people’s lives, their feelings might be hard for them to understand in such a way that a handful of them somehow resort to detrimental habits to compensate for the lack of neurotransmitters. In the case of drug addicts, we can assume that aside from environmental factors, such craving might arise from low dopamine levels as drugs like cocaine stimulate the release of dopamine.

Neurotransmitters and the Autism Spectrum

A team, led by Caroline Robertson of Harvard, found a link between GABA and the autism spectrum. Although the study has not been conclusive, by realizing the role of GABA as a neurotransmitter, we can logically pinpoint that it could be responsible for how people within the autism spectrum commonly get overwhelmed by a flood of emotions and disparate sensory uproars that they can hardly control. GABA functions as an inhibitory neurotransmitter and lack thereof can lead to an outburst of other neurotransmitters when a stimulus occurs. An example of this can be a photosensitivity - the stimulus which is light can stimulate certain neurotransmitters and lack of GABA means inability to combat certain synapses that cause sensitivity. The same could be said to anger, calmness, and stress-reactiveness.

Awareness

If you have certain differences in your personality that you consider as chronic or recurring, perhaps genetics is the reason why you are the way you are. Awareness is the key. There are certain non-invasive lab tests that can determine neurotransmitter levels. There are ways for you to correct an imbalance if there is any but the first key to knowing what to do is awareness.

Sometimes you may find other people hard to understand but also, sometimes the best way to understand other people is to understand yourself. Conflicts may arise if you are stress-reactive, easily angered, irritable or too introverted. It may also be hard to handle work if you do not easily know how to adjust to people, have no confidence, or have hot flashes too often. But again, the key to knowing how to cope up with certain sensitivities that you are born with can be practical awareness of the personality you are born with through neurotransmitters. And like all other things, you can start to adjust from that knowledge and move forward from there.

 

References:

Altered-states.net. (2016). The Happy Brain Chemicals. [online] Available at: http://altered-states.net/barry/newsletter185/ [Accessed 30 May 2016].

Psychiatry, I. (2016). The Effects of Hormones on Mood. [online] Integrativepsychiatry.net. Available at: http://www.integrativepsychiatry.net/hormone_balance.html [Accessed 30 May 2016].

The Mouse Trap. (2009). Perosnality and Neurotransmitters. [online] Available at: http://the-mouse-trap.com/2009/01/22/perosnality-and-neurotransmitters/ [Accessed 30 May 2016].

Wikipedia. (2016). Neurotransmitter. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurotransmitter [Accessed 30 May 2016].

Braininbalancebook.com. (2016). Types of Neurotransmitters that Affect the Personality | Brain in Balance. [online] Available at: http://www.braininbalancebook.com/types-of-neurotransmitters-that-affect-the-personality/ [Accessed 30 May 2016].

Harvard Gazette. (2014). A brain link to autism. [online] Available at: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015/12/a-brain-link-to-autism/ [Accessed 30 May 2016].


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