Category Archives: Neuroscience

Brain Chemistry

Being from the United States, a country that is facing the harsh issue of obesity, I decided that it would be very interesting to research about exercise. Caroline wrote a blog post about brain chemistry and she put much emphasis on dopamine.  I found it very interesting that altered levels of dopamine can have such a large affect on the body.  I wondered what kinds of chemicals and neurotransmitters were released when someone exercised.  When you think about it, many people get incredibly positive effects from exercise, meaning that it must force a release of something in the brain to induce this.  But which neurotransmitters and hormones are responsible for this? Since we just recently did the medicines and drugs unit, I thought it would be beneficial and quite helpful to be able to research about exercise and be able to truly understand what it all means.  When I was doing my primary research, all kinds of things came up about how exercise makes you smarter, fixes health problems, reduces stress, helps you become more fit, and much more.  Wouldn’t everyone be exercising a very large amount if they knew this?

To begin, regular exercise can alleviate anxiety and boost energy. When you exercise, you work your heart, thus making it stronger, but also increased heart pumping increases the release of certain types of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, norepinephrine and GABA. Even small amounts of activity can help the body be more resistant to stressful situations even hours later. To expand on the effects of these neurotransmitters, serotonin (C10H12N2O) leaves you happier and more relaxed after working out. (Branch, S.) This is because the physical activity stimulates the release of these chemicals. When reading about this, I automatically thought of all of the drugs we learned about.  I went back to the mouse party simulation and reviewed how these drugs work. I noticed something in common with all of these drugs; they all have relate in the way they work with chemicals in the brain. All of the drugs either work with serotonin, dopamine or GABA receptors. For example, LSD deals with the serotonin receptors.  It binds to serotonin receptors and it binds to various ones, sometimes inhibiting them and sometimes exciting them. LSD excites a particular part of the brain, the locus coeruleus. This area of the brain forms feelings of wakefulness, etc.  LSD also has effects such as changed body temperature and heart rate which also occurs when you exercise.(Mouse Party)  To connect this to exercising, when you exercise, serotonin is released, making the person who was working out feel more relaxed and happy. Even though exercise is not a drug that chemically alters the brain, it certainly acts in similar ways as many drugs are meant to act.

Although exercise is certainly not a drug and usually it can be closely connected because it has many of the same effects and usually creates better moods, more relaxation, and a more stimulated brain. With this being said, it is not to get mixed up because drugs also have many negative effects which are not associated with exercising.  Additionally, norepinephrine is a very important neuromodulator in the brain.  Many scientists believe that the norepinephrine concentrations are much higher in the brain during physical activity, thus leading to the body being able to deal with stress more effectively. 50% of norepinephrine is created in the LC (locus coeruleus) and this area of the brain is “involved in emotional and stress responses.”(Dishman, R.)


Serotonin Structure

Serotonin Neuron

Serotonin Neuron

Endorphins also play a key role in helping to decrease stress levels.  Endorphins are created in the “pituitary gland in response to stress or pain. They bind to opioid receptors in neurons, blocking the release of neurotransmitters and thus interfering with the transmission of pain impulses to the brain”.(McGovern, M.) When you exercise, the activity stimulates the release of endorphins and these help you to deal with the stress and pain dealt with during exercise. For example, “runners high” is considered to be because the increased release of endorphins is responsible for the euphoria feeling after running and thus the runner feels a very happy, relaxed feeling. (McGovern, M.) Endorphins are much like drugs in the way that their effects have a very addictive effect and the person exercising builds a tolerance to these, and must exercise more to get the same euphoria feeling over time. “In fact, endorphins attach to the same neuron receptors as opiates such as morphine and heroin.” (McGovern, M.) Many scientists believe that only a small amount of people exercise regularly because the endorphins take about 30 minutes to kick in.  This means that the person doesn’t feel these positive effects until a while after their exercise and only associates exercising with stress and pain.

To continue, exercise and physical activity can also make your brain stronger, thus leading to a more efficient brain. “Exercise slows the loss of gray matter in the brain.” This is because the chemicals that are produced and released while exercising help to fight brain-killing chemicals that are produced during stressful periods. According to Forbes, “ In the long term, it [exercise] can even help starve off brain aging and Alzheimer’s. This works on the cellular level through neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to improve itself with blood flow and levels of brain-derived protein. He calls it “miracle-gro” for the brain, and it all comes from regular exercise!” Neuroplasticity changes the neural pathways when changes in behavior, environment, or even injuries.  Neuroplasticity is very recognized “in healthy development, learning, memory, and recovery from brain damage.”(Branch, S.) I think that this is very important because when you exercise and work your body and strengthen your brain, very complicated processes take place to alter and help the brain to possibly recover, and or build cells, etc.

To continue, when exercise takes place, the stress you put on your own body forces the brain to create new neurons (called neurogenesis) “especially in the hippocampus- the area in charge of learning and memory”.  This happens because when exercise occurs, you are stressing your body and it’s systems and in order for it to recover, it needs to repair this damage.  This is significant because it leads to an “increase in brainpower” and thus makes the brain more efficient and stronger. (Andersen, C.) This gets mixed up very frequently with the thought that if you exercise enough, you will be a genius. This is not true.  If you overexercise, it is possible that your brain will actually become weaker and it will be more difficult to learn.


Hippocampus in the Brain

While it may not be possible to exercise enough to become a genius, it is definitely possible “to exercise to happiness.”(McGovern, M.) To understand how this works, when a person becomes depressed, they show a lack of vital neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and serotonin.  As said before, exercise increases the concentration of these neurotransmitters in the brain, thus leading to an increased mental health and stimulating the brain.  As seen below, the depressed brain has much less activity in it, while the “not-depressed” brain has much more activity.  When exercise occurs and the concentration of positive neurotransmitters increases, depression can be alleviated.


Effects of Depression on the Brain

When I did my research, I couldn’t help but connect this to economics.  Even though this is a health aspect, it has many economic effects. Every year, the United States spends millions, even billions on health care and running can have so many positive effects on the body that could potentially lower these costs. If physical education and exercise was incorporated into schools more, depression rates could drop, obesity could start to plateau and stop growing, and the government in turn could save large amounts of money on healthcare and put it to other causes, such as research and development to help healthcare in the future.  But first, the mentality needs to change.  People have become lazy and thus don’t have any motivation to exercise.  More education needs to take place to educate children and adults on the dangers of obesity, and also the positive effects of exercise on your body.



Andersen, C. (n.d.). Exercise and the Brain: 4 Ways Working Out Changes the Human Brain – Shape Magazine. Shape Magazine – Diet, Fitness, Recipes, Healthy Eating Expertise. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from

Branch, S. (2011, February 24). How Exercise Alters Brain Chemistry | LIVESTRONG.COM. LIVESTRONG.COM – Lose Weight & Get Fit with Diet, Nutrition & Fitness Tools | LIVESTRONG.COM. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from

Cohen, J. (2012, May 8). 6 Ways Exercise Makes You Smarter – Forbes. Information for the World’s Business Leaders – Retrieved May 30, 2013, from

Dishman, R. (n.d.). Exercise Fuels the Brain’s Stress Buffers. American Psychological Association (APA). Retrieved May 30, 2013, from

Exercise: 7 benefits of regular physical activity – (n.d.). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from

Girdwain, J. (2013, May 28). How to fix health problems with exercise – – Breaking News, U.S., World, Weather, Entertainment & Video News. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from

McGovern, M. (n.d.). The Effects of Exercise on the Brain. Serendip Studio. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from

Mouse Party. (n.d.). Learn. Genetics. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from


N/A. PET scan of the brain for depression. N.d. Mayo Clinic, N/A. Mayo Clinic. Web. 30 May 2013.

N/A. Hippocampus. N.d. Memory Loss & The Brain, Rutgers University. Memory Loss Online. Web. 30 May 2013.

N/A. Serotonin. N.d. Serotonin, N/A. Chemistry-Reference. Web. 30 May 2013.

N/A. What is Serotonin?. N.d. N/A, N/A. News-Medical. Web. 30 May 2013.

Brain Chemistry

I decided to take AP Language and Composition this year, and one of my summer assignments was to write a book report on any of the books in the recommended reading list. I chose the book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by the neurologist Oliver Sacks, because it was one of the most compelling titles out of the bunch. When I started reading, I assumed that this story was a collection of accounts of cases of different mental disorders, which it turned out to be, but I was surprised to find there were some chemistry related aspects to it as well.

In one of the essays, “Witty Ticcy Ray,” Sacks recounted his encounter with a man, named Ray, who had a severe form of Tourette’s, a rare inherited neurological disorder that causes a person to experience frequent “tics” or spasms. (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013) These tics result from “an excess of exciter transmitters in the brain, especially the transmitter dopamine (C8H11NO2).” (Sacks, 1985)


(Harbin, 2008) – skeletal formula dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which is any group of chemical agents released by neurons (nerve cells) to stimulate neighboring neurons, allowing impulses to be passed from one cell to the next throughout the nervous system. (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013)


(US National Institutes of Health, 2009) – impulse transmission in synapse

To treat his Tourette’s, his doctor, Sacks, prescribed haloperidol, otherwise known as Haldol, a drug that inhibits the formation of dopamine in his brain.


(Fvasconcellos, 2007) – Skeletal formula of haloperidol

To me, one of the most interesting parts of the essay was Sack’s juxtaposition of Tourette’s and Parkinson’s disease. Where Tourette’s disease is an excess of dopamine, Parkinson’s disease is a lack of it. Parkinson’s is characterized by “muscle rigidity, difficulty and slowness in movement,” the opposite of the hyperactivity that characterizes Tourette’s. (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013) In an analogy, having Tourette’s would be as if running at the speed of a cheetah, and having Parkinson’s would be as if crawling at the pace of a snail (although this reflects the more extreme cases of the diseases).

In both of these diseases, the causes of the abnormal dopamine production seems to originate from the “the thalamus, hypothalamus, limbic system and amygdala, where the basic affective and instinctual determinants of personality are lodged.” (Sacks, 1985)


(San Diego State University, n.d.) – Brain diagram

The lack of dopamine in a Parkinson’s patient is due to the loss of dopaminergic neurons that normally synthesize and use dopamine to communicate with other neurons in parts of the brain that control and regulate motor function.  To treat Parkinson’s, L-Dopa is given. (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013)

An organic compound, L-Dopa (L-3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine; C9H11NO4), also known as levodopa, is a precursor (in biochemistry, a compound that participates in a chemical reaction within a cell) to dopamine, and is able to cross the protective blood-brain barrier (a filtering mechanism of the capillaries that carry blood to the brain and spinal cord tissue, blocking the passage of certain substances). (Longe, 2006) Once L-Dopa is in the central nervous system, it is decarboxylated (the removal of the carboxyl (-COOH) group) into dopamine by the enzyme dopa decarboxylase (DDC), a catalyst, and pyridoxal phosphate (vitamin B6). (Porter, 2009) It then increases dopamine concentrations to “awaken” motor senses and restore the physical abilities of the Parkinson’s patients.


(NEUROtiker, 2007) – skeletal formulas and reactions of L-Dopa using biosynthesis

Sacks observed that his dopamine-deficient patients, when first introduced to L-Dopa, “were ‘awakened’ from stupor to health” and exhibited “wild excitements, violent impulses, often combined with a weird, antic humor.” (Sacks, 1985)

Although I do not know anyone who has Parkinson’s, I know that there is an estimated 10 million people worldwide that live with Parkinson’s, and approximately 60,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the United States alone. (Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, 2013) Those numbers are scary, but my findings should be able to comfort those who have been affected by Parkinson’s. Whether a friend, family member, or themselves has Parkinson’s, I hope they will feel better knowing that there are methods of treatment that can help Parkinson’s patients lead relatively normal lives.

I did, however,  have a classmate in 8th grade who hit their head on the ground during P.E. and started experiencing restlessness and tics that he could not control. After my research, I can infer that that boy might have hit a certain part of his head to create an excess production of dopamine in his brain, and a possible treatment would be a prescription of Haldol, or another dopamine inhibiting drug.

I used to think that “something just went wrong with the brain” when thinking about neurological disorders, but my findings tell me that they are nothing to be afraid of, and that there are logical reasons behind these diseases. The advancement of medicine has come very far, and in the future I am sure there will be even greater advancements in this field. For example, a research project working on targeting dopamine-controlling drugs to the specific, affected part of the brain is currently underway. For more information on this study , here is a very interesting TedTalk on “brain chemistry.”


Human disease. (n.d.). Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from

Levodopa. (n.d.). Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from

Longe, J. L. (2006). The Gale encyclopedia of medicine (3rd ed.). Detroit: Thomson Gale.

Porter, C. (2009, December 2). Chemistry of L-Dopa. Levodopa. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from

Sacks, O. W. (1985). The man who mistook his wife for a hat and other clinical tales. New York: Summit Books.

Statistics on Parkinson’s. (n.d.). Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from

Tourette syndrome. (n.d.). Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from

dopamine. (n.d.). Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from

neurotransmitter. (n.d.). Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 12, 2013, from


San Diego State University (2013). Limbic System. [image online] Available at: [Accessed: March 12, 2013].

TedTalks (2013). David Anderson: Your brain is more than a bag of chemicals. Available at: [Accessed: March 13, 2013].

Unknown. (2013). Dopamine. [image online] Available at: [Accessed: March 12, 2013].

Unknown. (2013). Haloperidol. [image online] Available at: [Accessed: March 12, 2013].

Unknown. (2013). Catecholamines biosynthesis. [image online] Available at: [Accessed: March 13, 2013].

US National Institutes of Health (2013). Chemical synapse schema cropped. [image online] Available at: [Accessed: March 13, 2013].

Video Games, Are They Only Harmful?

As a kid, I have always been fascinated by video games and really enjoy playing them; however, my parents really opposes this type of things because they claim that video games can lead to addiction. Every time they see me play games, they would start to talk about how video games can lead to addiction which leads into many other harmful things in life such as academic failure. While this might be true, I know that many times what our parents claims are just false facts to scare us. As a result, I decided to do some research on video games’ actual effects on the body and whether or not they generate addiction

Addiction, the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma (Addiction), is what all parents fear because of its effect on their children’s academics and social life. While addiction is regarded as something very harmful, the cause of addiction is actually due to a protein found naturally in the human brain.

In AP Biology, I learned about the formation of proteins in our bodies. Proteins are coded from things called amino acids which consists of a hydroxyl, carboxyl group and a R group to determine what kind of amino acid it is. These amino are then connected into a polypeptide chain that later folds into the shape needed for the proper function of the protein. The polypeptide chain would fold in a specific way to function as the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter found naturally in the brain. The chemical structure of dopamine is C8H11NO2 as seen in the picture 1 (Macalester College).

Picture 1: Chemical Structure of Dopamine (nuweb, 2013)

Dopamine synthesis begins when the amino acid tyrosine enters dopaminergic neurons. Inside the neuron, the enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase adds a hydroxyl group (OH)

Picture 2: Hydroxyl Group (world of biochemistry, 2013)

to tyrosine and it becomes 3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine (DOPA). The final step in the creation of dopamine involves an enzyme called aromatic L-amino acid decarboxylase, which removes a carboxyl group (COOH) from DOPA. (Macalester College)

Picture 3: Carboxyl Group (Science, 2013)

In certain areas of the brain when dopamine is released gives one the feeling of pleasure or satisfaction. (Siddiqui) When people play video games, a certain amount of dopamine is released into the brain according the intensity and excitement of the player. According to Langlois (2011), an experiment that was done in 1998, by Koepp et al, monitored people’s dopamine levels, which then showed that the dopamine level increased by 100%. This number might look horrifying, but compared to other natural rewards like food and sex; the number is quite normal. Here is a diagram to illustrate it.

Picture 4: Dopamine Level (gamertheapist, 2013)

As seen in the picture 4, food creates 50% increase in dopamine and sex creates 100%. So why is video games opposed so much by parents but not sex and food. Perhaps parents’ oppositions to video games and not sex and food are because sex and food are necessary components for the survival of life. While all three of these things can lead to addiction, video games is not a necessity in life so being addicted to such does one no good. As a result, we don’t see parents complaining to their kids about how sex and food are harmful to their life.

People constantly have the urge to game because they long to feel the rush of euphoria caused by dopamine release. To satisfy that desire, people will repeat behaviors that cause the release of dopamine. (Siddiqui)

In conclusion, video games can have very harmful effect on the human body because addiction leads to other things such as academic failure. However, there are also benefits to gaming.  According to Anthes (2009) most games involve a huge number of mental tasks, and playing can boost any one of them. Complex, strategy-based games can improve cognitive skills, including working memory and reasoning. Richard Haier, a pediatric neurologist and professor emeritus at the School of Medicine at the University of California at Irvine, has shown in a study with his colleagues that after playing Tetris for three month, the brain efficiency of the experimental group increased dramatically relative to the control group. (Anthes, 2009)

For me, while video games are very attractive, I have found ways to regulate myself, preventing addiction. The main method I use is making a deal with myself. I would tell myself that I could do some work first and as a reward I get some playing time. This way, I won’t be neglecting work and I can satisfy my need to play.



Chemical Structure of Dopamine [Image]. (2013) Retrieved from

Hydroxyl Group [Image]. (2013) Retrieved from

Carboxyl Group [Image]. (2013) Retrieved from

Dopamine Level [Image]. (2013) Retrieved from


Anthes, E. (2009, October 12). How video games are good for the brain – The Boston Globe. – Boston, MA news, breaking news, sports, video. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from

Siddiqui, I. I. (n.d.). Dopamine and Addiction. Serendip Studio. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from

Langlois, M. L. (2011, November 8). Dopey About Dopamine: Video Games, Drugs, & Addiction. Gamer Therapist. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from

Macalester College, M. C. (n.d.). Dopamine. Macalester College: Private Liberal Arts College. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from

Macalester College, M. C. (n.d.). Biochemistry: Dopamine . Macalester College: Private Liberal Arts College. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from

Addiction. (n.d.). Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. Retrieved May 28, 2013, from website: