The Role of Neurotransmitters in Brain and Cognitive Health

The Role of Neurotransmitters in Brain and Cognitive Health


While neurotransmitter health is not something you’re likely to hear much about, you’ve probably heard about the importance of cognitive health, mental health, and brain function. Neurotransmitters are foundational to these key areas of well-being that encompass mood, emotions, learning, coordination, memory, focus, and sleep. As with many aspects of our health, maintaining healthy levels of neurotransmitters is heavily influenced by diet, lifestyle and environment.

What are neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are specialised chemicals that transmit signals between neurons or nerve cells and target cells such as muscle cells, allowing them to communicate with each other. These chemical messengers are constantly delivering information and instructions across the vast networks of the brain, down into the spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system.

How do neurotransmitters influence cognitive health?
Cognitive health encompasses a spectrum of mental processes, such as memory, focus and problem-solving. While the structural integrity of the brain tissue and cells is a key part of cognitive health, the primary focus for supporting cognitive health has to do with the intricate interplay of neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, dopamine, glutamate, and serotonin help to facilitate synaptic transmission–the process that allows nerve cells in the brain to communicate.[1] Acetylcholine is also crucial in mediating neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to reorganise itself to form new connections, allowing for adaptation to experiences and environmental changes, such as forming new habits.[2]

An imbalance in these neurotransmitter systems has been linked to cognitive impairments seen in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and depression - making neurotransmitter-based therapy a key area of research in the treatment of cognitive disorders. [3]

The cognitive-physical health axis
The same neurotransmitters that exert a profound influence on cognitive health also have a broader impact on physiological responses. Neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine, glutamate, serotonin, and dopamine, have a downstream effect on immune function, nervous system and stress regulation, muscle contraction and coordination, and hormonal balance. [4-6] So while it may seem as though neurotransmitters are only involved in what happens in the brain, they are a prime example of the cross-talk that occurs between brain health and bodily processes.

Neurotransmitters and the mental health connection
In mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia, neurotransmitters take centre stage. So much so that medications aimed at treating these conditions actually target neurotransmitters, increasing them or reducing their uptake, which is how serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) act.

Improving the production of certain neurotransmitters can have a positive impact on mental health. The neurotransmitter GABA is well known, for example, for its ability to induce a sense of calm and relaxation.

Nurturing neurotransmitter health
Maintaining healthy levels of neurotransmitters is essential for overall wellbeing. Certain foods, lifestyle interventions, vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements can dramatically influence neurotransmitter levels.

Prioritise protein
Amino acids, commonly referred to as “the building blocks of protein”, are also the building blocks of the most abundant group of neurotransmitters; these include glutamate, GABA and glycine. Amines, modified amino acids, also produce neurotransmitters. Some of the most common amino acids/amines found in high protein sources in the diet include tryptophan for serotonin and melatonin, glutamine for GABA, and tyrosine for dopamine and adrenaline.[1]

Focus on cardio
Promoting cerebral blood flow increases nutrient supply to the brain tissue, supporting neurotransmitter production and release. Cardiorespiratory fitness is closely linked with cognitive health partly due to its positive influence on cerebral blood flow.[2]

Prioritise your sleep routine
During sleep, the brain undergoes a complex series of physiological processes that are instrumental in maintaining optimal neurotransmitter levels. Implementing a sleep routine which includes the removal of blue light a few hours before bed and winding down other stimulating activities, helps your body align with its natural circadian rhythm.

Realigning with the circadian rhythm aids the production of melatonin, a hormone that is also classified as a neurotransmitter. Melatonin is responsible for helping with both falling asleep, as well as having a deep, restful sleep. Additionally, sleep facilitates the release of growth hormone, which supports the synthesis of neurotransmitters, fostering cognitive functions like learning, memory, and emotional regulation.

Key nutrients for cognitive health
Choline is necessary for the synthesis of another type of fat called phosphatidylcholine, a nutrient that makes up the majority of a healthy cell membrane. Essential functions such as brain cell membrane signalling require adequate amounts of choline. As the precursor nutrient for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, choline also supports healthy mood, memory, and muscle contraction. [7]

EGC (epigallocatechin-3-gallate), a compound found in green tea, is famous for its high antioxidant rating. When it comes to healthy cognition, research has shown that EGCG interacts directly with neurotransmitter receptors, promotes neuron survival and communication and improves cognitive performance. [8]

Polyphenols are protective plant chemicals found in fruits, vegetables, and herbs that help increase antioxidants in the body. The antioxidant capacity to reduce oxidative stress allows polyphenols to reduce neuronal inflammation and protect neurons from damage. [9] Neuronal inflammation impairs cognitive health and function by negatively impacting neurotransmitter production, release and reuptake. [10]
The interplay of neurotransmitters not only shapes physical brain health but also significantly impacts cognitive function, mental health, as well as physical wellbeing. Consider which key diet and lifestyle interventions you could include to improve your neurotransmitter health for enhanced cognitive function and mental health for life.

  1. Patri, M. (2018). Synaptic transmission and amino acid neurotransmitters. IntechOpen. DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.82121.
  2. Krishnamurthy, V., et al. (2022). The relationship between resting cerebral blood flow, neurometabolites, cardio-respiratory fitness and aging-related cognitive decline. Front. Psychiatry, 13.
  3. Yang, Z., et al. (2023). Neurotransmitters in prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Int J Mol Sci, 24(4): 3841.
  4. Cox, M.A., et al. (2019). Beyond neurotransmission: acetylcholine in immunity and inflammation. Journal of Internal Medicine, 287(2): 120-133.
  5. Borodinsky, L.N., et al. (2014). Dynamic regulation of neurotransmitter specification: Relevance to nervous system homeostasis. Neuropharmacology, 78: 75-80.
  6. Kuo. I.Y., et al. (2015). Signaling in muscle contraction. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol, 7(2): a007023.
  7. National Institutes of Health. Choline. Updated June 2022, accessed January 2024 from
  8. Sing, N.A., et al. (2016). Potential neuroprotective properties of epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). Nutrition Journal, 15(60).
  9. Vauzour, D. (2012). Dietary polyphenols as modulators of brain functions: biological actions and molecular mechanisms underpinning their beneficial effects. Oxid Med Cell Longev, 2012:
  10. Miller, A.H., et al. (2013). Cytokine targets in the brain: impact on neurotransmitters and neurocircuits. Depress Anxiety, 30(4): 297-306.