What is Gamma Aminobutyric Acid? - Effects, Benefits & Function

Instructor: Robin Harley

Robin has a PhD in health psychology. She has taught undergraduate and graduate psychology, health science, and health education.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that inhibits central nervous system activity, producing a relaxation effect. This lesson will describe the function and effects of GABA.

Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid Definition

Every move you make and thought you have is controlled by your nervous system. When you want to move your hand, your brain sends this message down your arm using electrical impulses and chemicals that exist naturally in the body. The chemicals are called neurotransmitters, and they transmit messages from one cell to another in the nervous system. There are about 100 different types of neurotransmitters in your body, and each has a different function. In this lesson, we'll discuss gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that inhibits nervous system activity, producing a relaxation effect. Before we delve into the details of GABA's effects and uses, let's begin by briefly discussing how the nervous system works at the cellular level.

Neurons and Their Function

Structure of the Neuron

The powerhouse of the nervous system is the nerve cell, called the neuron. You have around 100 billion of these cells in your brain. They transmit signals to each other and to other parts of your body. The most important parts of a neuron are the soma, the dendrites, the axon, the axon terminals, the synapse, and the receptors. Let's discuss each in turn.


The soma, or cell body, directs the cell's activities. Branching out from the soma are the dendrites, which contain receptors. Receptors are naturally-occurring proteins that receive neurotransmitters and their messages. When these messages are received, they turn into electrical impulses that travel along the axon, a long fiber that ends at the axon terminals. At these terminals, the electrical impulse releases neurotransmitters across a gap, called the synapse, where they are picked up by the receptors of the next cell. As you can see, your nervous system works with chemical and electrical messages to drive your actions and thoughts. Now let's discuss the effects of GABA.

Effects of GABA

GABA was discovered to be part of the central nervous system in 1950. It's one of the most prevalent neurotransmitters, coming in second after glutamate, which increases nervous system activity (in opposition to GABA). Interestingly, with the help of an enzyme and vitamin B6, the brain can convert glutamate into GABA. GABA can be found in large concentrations in the cerebral cortex (the outer layer of the brain), the cerebellum (a structure in the back of the brain), the hippocampus (a structure in the middle of the brain), and the spinal cord.

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