The Function of Neurotransmitters

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  • 0:00 Neurons
  • 1:13 Neurotransmitters
  • 2:29 Reuptake & Degradation
  • 3:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Like people, neurons need to communicate with each other in order to work together to function. In this lesson, we'll examine neurotransmitters, including what they do, how they do it, and what happens after they've done their job.


Picture're in class and you decide that you want to pull a prank on your teacher. You decide to tell your best friend Kyle and some of the other kids in class to all stand up at once and start reciting the Pledge of Allegiance right in the middle of class!

The only problem is, you don't sit next to Kyle, and you can't very well just shout across to him. You decide to write him a note. After writing it, you fold it into a paper airplane, and when the teacher's not looking, you send it soaring over to Kyle. He reads it, grins, and then sends it soaring over to another student.

Neurons are cells that are found in the nervous system, including the brain. Brain activity occurs when neurons communicate with one another. One neuron doing something won't really impact much, but a bunch of them together can really make a statement. Kind of like you standing up and saying the Pledge isn't so great, but the entire class doing it will have a major impact!

But like you and your classmates, neurons need a way to pass messages back and forth among themselves. Let's look closer at neurotransmitters, the chemicals that pass messages between neurons, and how they work.


Let's go back to the classroom for a second. You want to get a message to Kyle so that he'll help you coordinate the other students in a big activity. So you send him a note in a paper airplane.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that carry messages from one neuron to another. Just like the paper airplane, they move from one neuron to the next. To understand how this works, think about you and Kyle. You aren't next to him, and you need a way to communicate, so you send your message on a paper airplane, and then he passes it on to another person, and so on, until the whole class knows the plan and is ready for action.

Like you and Kyle, neurons don't touch each other. There's a small gap between neurons called a synapse. When one neuron fires - that is, it becomes active - it sends a neurotransmitter across the synapse to the next neuron, like a paper airplane. It enters the second neuron, which then fires and sends a neurotransmitter to another neuron. This continues on and on until a bunch of neurons are all working in coordination. So, just like you sending the paper airplane message to Kyle, who then passes it on to another student, who passes it on to another student, and so on, neurotransmitters are sent from neuron to neuron across synapses.

Reuptake & Degradation

Let's say that you want to send your message to Kyle, but you know that flying paper airplanes aren't always accurate. Some of them go where you want them to, but not all of them do. To be sure that Kyle gets the signal, you decide to make several paper airplane messages and send them Kyle's way. That way, hopefully at least one will end up on Kyle's desk.

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