Cerebral Hemispheres 2
NEUROSCIENTIFICALLY CHALLENGED

NEUROSCIENCE MADE SIMPLER

The Many Sides of GABA


If you have a superficial level of knowledge about neuroscience, you probably won’t associate psychostimulants with gamma-aminobutyric acid (more commonly known as GABA). Just as you learn in early biology that a mitochondrion is the “powerhouse of the cell”, you learn in early neuroscience that GABA is the “primary inhibitory neurotransmitter of the brain”. And while this is often true (exceptions are being found on a regular basis), it perhaps doesn’t do justice to the diversity of roles that GABA can play.

There are, for example, many instances of GABA having an inhibitory effect on another inhibitory neuron. This can in effect stop the inhibition, potentially allowing for excitation by another neurotransmitter. Exactly this happens every time you make a voluntary movement. Neurons in the striatum release GABA that inhibits the action of neurons in the globus pallidus. These neurons normally inhibit areas of the thalamus that are necessary for movement but when they are inhibited the thalamus is essentially freed up, allowing us to move.

So, GABA-ergic actions don't necessarily mean inhibition as an end result. This is also true when it comes to the addictive properties of drugs. Dopamine (DA) neurons in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) directly modulate GABAergic connections to the ventral pallidum (VP), which itself sends GABAergic projections back to the NAc. Thus, it is easy to imagine that influencing DA transmission in the NAc, an inevitable outcome of drug use, also has an effect on GABAergic activity throughout the reward system.

Because of this, researchers like Claire Dixon and colleagues have been interested in how GABAa receptors are affected by the administration of drugs like cocaine. In a study published earlier this year in PNAS, Dixon et al. used knockout (KO) mice that had the gene for the alpha2 subunit of the GABAa receptor deleted. GABAa receptors containing these subunits are highly expressed in the NAc.

While these KO mice still demonstrated a stimulant response to cocaine (based on locomotor assays), they failed to show sensitization to the drug, i.e. their activity remained the same on repeated administrations while the wild-type (WT) mice's activity progressively increased. Additionally, cocaine's ability to facilitate conditioned reinforcement (lever pressing) was vastly reduced in the KO mice.

This indicates that GABA may have a role in mediating an addictive response to drugs. The authors hypothesize that the ability of cocaine to increase behaviors associated with environmental cues connected to the drug (lever pressing), and with conditioned activity (sensitization), may depend upon GABAa receptors. Alpha-2 subunits may allow cocaine to strengthen the association between cues and a drug, an association that underlies some of the most compulsive aspects of addiction. Thus, perhaps GABA receptors represent a potential, if not unlikely, target for treating addiction.

Dixon et al. (2010). Cocaine effects on mouse incentive-learning and human addiction are linked to alpha2 subunit-containing GABAa receptors. PNAS, 107, 2289-2294.

YOUR BRAIN, EXPLAINED

Sleep. Memory. Pleasure. Fear. Language. We experience these things every day, but how do our brains create them? Your Brain, Explained is a personal tour around your gray matter. Building on neuroscientist Marc Dingman’s popular YouTube series, 2-Minute Neuroscience, this is a friendly, engaging introduction to the human brain and its quirks using real-life examples and Dingman’s own, hand-drawn illustrations.

  • Reading like a collection of detective stories, Your Brain, Explained combines classic cases in the history of neurology with findings stemming from the latest techniques used to probe the brain’s secrets. - Stanley Finger, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychological & Brain Sciences, Washington University (St. Louis), author, Origins of Neuroscience

  • ...a highly readable and accessible introduction to the operation of the brain and current issues in neuroscience... a wonderful introduction to the field. - Frank Amthor, PhD, Professor of Psychology, The University of Alabama at Birmingham, author, Neuroscience for Dummies

  • An informative, accessible and engaging book for anyone who has even the slightest interest in how the brain works, but doesn’t know where to begin. - Dean Burnett, PhD, author, Happy Brain and Idiot Brain

  • Dingman weaves classic studies with modern research into easily digestible sections, to provide an excellent primer on the rapidly advancing field of neuroscience. - Moheb Costandi, author, Neuroplasticity and 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know

BIZARRE

This book shows a whole other side of how brains work by examining the most unusual behavior to emerge from the human brain. In it, you'll meet a woman who is afraid to take a shower because she fears her body will slip down the drain, a man who is convinced he is a cat, a woman who compulsively snacks on cigarette ashes, and many other unusual cases. As uncommon as they are, each of these cases has something important to teach us about everyday brain function.

  • Dingman brings the history of neuroscience back to life and weaves in contemporary ideas seamlessly. Readers will come along for the ride of a really interesting read and accidentally learn some neuroscience along the way. - Erin Kirschmann, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology & Counseling, Immaculata University

  • A unique combination of storytelling and scientific explanation that appeals to the brain novice, the trained neuroscientist, and everyone in between. Dingman explores some of the most fascinating and mysterious expressions of human behavior in a style that is case study, dramatic novel, and introductory textbook all rolled into one. - Alison Kreisler, PhD, Neuroscience Instructor, California State University, San Marcos

  • Through case studies of both exceptional people as well as those with disorders, Bizarre takes us on a fascinating journey in which we learn more about what is going on in our skull. - William J. Ray, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, author, Abnormal Psychology

  • Bizarre is a collection of stories of how the brain can create zombies, cult members, extra limbs, instant musicians, and overnight accents, to name a few of the mind-scratching cases. After reading this book, you will walk away with a greater appreciation for this bizarre organ. If you are a fan of Oliver Sacks' books, you're certain to be a fan of Dingman's Bizarre. - Allison M. Wilck, PhD, Researcher and Assistant Professor of Psychology, Eastern Mennonite University