Our brains use on average only 20% of our total energy. But how do they use it? Studying neurotransmitters like the amino acid GABA can lead to a greater understanding of our brain chemistry.
Gamma-Aminobutyric_acid, or GABA, is a non-essential amino acid, which is created in our bodies from glutamic acid. It’s a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, essential in maintaining brain function. Simply put, GABA controls neuron activity and prevents nerve cells from firing too often, too quickly.
The activity of GABA in our brains can be measured with magnetic resonance spectroscopy. A study by Lars Michels, Ernst Martin et al, from University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland, was developed to examine GABA neurotransmitter levels in the brains of volunteers performing certain tasks. Would GABA levels be increased during performance? Would amino acid GABA levels be linked to reaction time and task accuracy? The researchers devised a match-to-sample working memory task, which subjects performed under magnetic resonance spectroscopy.
Neurotransmitter GABA’s role in working memory
Working memory is a theoretical concept, not an actual physical part of our brain. It’s the term for our brain’s ability to examine and manipulate new information. Working memory is associated with cognitive development, and studies show it declines with age.
Sixteen healthy right-handed volunteers took part in the study. They were shown five letters for a stimulus period of 2 seconds. These letters had to be maintained in memory for a retention period of 5 seconds before a single letter appeared for a probe interval of 2 seconds. The subjects had to indicate by button press whether or not this single letter was part of the stimulus set. Results showed that GABA levels increased significantly during the working memory test. The amino acid GABA therefore has an essential role in working memory.