Psychotherapist’s Essential Guide To The Brain Part 7
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We know the brain is a complexity of neural networks, and the pathways of these networks describe thinking patterns. But that is only half the story, since the networks themselves cannot work without the electrochemical action of neurotransmitters. A synergy exists between established neural pathways and the activation of these pathways, which is mediated by neurochemicals, and it is these chemicals that are the topic of discussion in this part of our journey. As therapists, we want to know what we can do in our practice to enhance positive (i.e., helpful) neurochemical activity and, similarly, what it is that inhibits, or dysregulates, such activity without reverting to pharmacology. Therefore, a basic understanding of the specific neurochemicals that modulate the nervous system is essential for our understanding of what drives certain pathologies, why certain interventions are effective, and why some are not.
For a video presentation of this material, I would encourage you to do the short course by Professor Pieter Rossouw (The Neuropsychotherapy Institute, 2014), where he presents neurochemicals in a beautifully simple and practical way for therapists.
There are two main groups of neurotransmitters we need to consider: those that act slowly and bring about enduring changes, and those that act quickly and have more of a temporal effect on brain activity. The fast-acting neurotransmitters are amino acids, the most prominent of these being glutamate, aspartate, glycine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Glutamate, aspartate, and glycine come from the proteins we consume, and GABA comes from a simple modification of glutamate. The slower acting neurotransmitters are biogenic amines.
Glutamates. Glutamates act as excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain and are essential to normal functioning. Receptor sites are either the fast-acting ionotropic types such as AMPA (i.e., α-amino-3-hydroxy- 5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionic acid), which primarily activate or inhibit, or the slower acting N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA) types, which facilitate a strengthening of the synaptic connection known as long-term potentiation. Glutamates bind with activating receptors (AMPA), resulting in fast activation of the postsynaptic neurone.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that plays a counterpart role to the glutamates: if glutamate is the accelerator of the brain, GABA is the break. As you can appreciate, an active system like this needs to modulate and balance activation with a dampening or breaking system, and herein lies the function of GABA. It acts fast, binding with GABA receptors to cause an inhibiting effect on the postsynaptic cell. GABA and AMPA interactions are seen across the brain and result in much of the fast action of our neural processes—much of our thought processes and sensory input/processing, for example…
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