GABA - What Is It and What It Does

GABA - What Is It and What It Does


To more easily understand how GABA operates, we need to define a few terms. The first is neuron. A neuron is another name for a nerve cell. Each neuron has an axon — a thread-like part of the cell that sends signals from the cell body, and a dendrite — a part of the cell that receives signals from other neurons. The neurons are not touching and the space between the cells is called the synapse. Electrical signals are sent through the synapse to a receptor, a place on a cell that can produce a certain effect—like the production of adrenaline if someone is frightened.

The central nervous system (“CNS”) is composed of the brain and the spinal cord. The CNS transmits signals to the rest of the body using chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are stored in vesicles—hollow sac-like structures inside the cells. These neurotransmitters carry a message from a neuron to receptors on another neuron. The action of the neurotransmitters on the receptors has been likened to a key being inserted in a lock. When the key is turned the lock opens and the neurotransmitters activate the receptors, which in turn creates an effect in the body. Then many of the neurotransmitters return to the releasing vesicles to be used again. The following picture illustrates these actions.

Using an automobile analogy, some neurotransmitters act like a brake. They inhibit or slow down the actions of the neurons. These are called inhibitory neurotransmitters. Other neurotransmitters act like an accelerator. They increase the speed of the actions of the neurons. These are called excitatory neurotransmitters.

Excitatory neurotransmitters are vital to help us stay alert, maintain our normal memory functions, our co-ordination, normal emotional responses, our heart rate, and our blood pressure. If there is something that creates anxiety or a feeling of panic or other stress, more excitatory neurotransmitters are released and a person can feel restlessness, higher than normal irritability, rapid heartbeats, high blood pressure, insomnia, and even seizures.

If things are operating properly in our brain, excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters keep us calm and alert.


Glutamate (a common amino acid) is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. Again, like the car, glutamate speeds things up and when they are going too fast, GABA slows them back down. If there is a problem with the GABA in our brains, the neurons fire more and more, increasing the speed of the processes in the brain.

When GABA binds to a nerve cell receptor, it opens the nerve cell so that chloride ions which are present in the brain are allowed to move into the nerve cell and slow the activity of the cell, and the person normally experiences a calming feeling.

For example, if our brain produces more excitatory neurotransmitters like norepinephrine or epinephrine (adrenaline) than normal, we can become anxious or have more stress than normal. If our brain is working normally, it will produce more GABA and this will slow down the actions in the brain and thus have a calming and relaxing effect on us.

It is widely believed that caffeine produces its stimulant effects by inhibiting the release of GABA and thereby allowing the increase of excitatory neurotransmitters. Research is indicating that a major factor in people who suffer from anxiety disorders or panic attacks and in people who have become addicted or dependent to street drugs, prescription drugs and alcohol is that they are likely to be suffering from low GABA activity.

Benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium and Ativan and Sedatives/Hypnotics like Ambien, Sonata and Lunesta, work to increase the effectiveness of GABA. To the extent that they are successful, these drugs will produce a calming effect.

Of course, the brain tries to keep all the neurotransmitters in balance. When it senses that these drugs have increased the action of the GABA it reduces the number of the GABA receptors, and consequently, the action of the GABA is lessened. This is called “down regulation” and explains why a dose of a drug may have a calming effect for a time and then apparently cease to work. This is also known as developing a tolerance to the drug.

If the GABA neurotransmitters predominate, people can have difficulty concentrating, have memory loss, have no energy and have many other disorders. This is why people that are taking high doses of benzodiazepines or other CNS depressants like alcohol often walk around in a “fog.”


Because of our unique DNA and the way that we metabolize drugs, each of us may have different amounts of GABA in the brain but we are still considered to be operating “normally.” Unfortunately, there are no accepted medical tests to determine if we have too much or too little GABA activity. In addition, it appears that people who are nutritionally deficit and dehydrated often have problems with the operation of GABA in their brains.

Since almost all of our patients are nutritionally deficient and dehydrated when they arrive at Novus, our Medical Director has implemented the addition of GABA to the IV therapy given to our patients. The purpose is to provide a more natural boost to the GABA in the brain and to allow the calming effect of GABA to make the detoxification process more comfortable. In addition, the extra GABA will help reduce the anxious feelings experienced by many of our patients who are concerned about how they will feel without drugs.


At Novus Medical Detox Center, we work hard to help our patients complete their withdrawal from heroin, OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax, methadone and alcohol in as safe, healthy and comfortable a manner as possible. We are proud of the results that our approach has with our patients. We are proud that so many of our patients have now become drug-free.

If you have a family member or friend that has questions about prescription drugs, illegal drugs or alcohol, they can read more about how to get help, by clicking here.. There are numerous articles that may help them better understand how drugs and alcohol work and what a person trapped by these substances is experiencing.

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