High on Neuropsych: An Introduction to Neurotransmitters

A professor of mine use to say, "We can't escape our biology."  Dr. Ann Leonard-Zabel's presentation on School Neuropsychology: Linking Assessment to Intervention at the New Hampshire Association of School Psychologists' (NHASP's) Fall Conference reminded me of that reality.

Every educator, from the challenge course to the classroom to wherever adventure takes you, should have at least some grounding in brain science.  What follows are just a handful of the chemicals that underlie our most complex emotions.  This collection was originally presented as a staff development presentation and each neurotransmitter was introduced with a short experiential activity that could be completed while sitting down.


  • “Dopamine circuits merge and cross with serotonin circuits” (Barlow & Durand, 2015, p. 48)
  • “associated with exploratory, outgoing, pleasure-seeking behaviors” (p. 48)
  • “excitatory neurotransmitter that has been linked to the punishment/reward system for the brain which is tied to the regulation of mood” (Leonard-Zabel, 2016, n.p.)
  • overproduction “has been linked with aggression and violence” (Leonard-Zabel, 2016, n.p.)

Norepinephrine (noradrenaline)

  • “One major circuit [for norepinephrine] begins in the hindbrain…Another circuit appears to influence the emergency reactions or alarm responses” (p. 47)
  • “may bear some relationship to state of panic” (p. 47)
  • “More likely…is not directly involved in specific patterns of behavior” (p. 47)

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)

  • works in concert with glutamate: “chemical brothers”
  • “its best known effect is to reduce anxiety” (p. 45)
  • “GABA seems to reduce overall arousal somewhat and to temper our emotional response” (p. 45)
  • inhibitory transmitter (glutamate is an excitatory transmitter)
  • “the GABA system seems to reduce levels of anger, hostility, aggression, and perhaps even positive emotional states…making GABA a generalized inhibiting neurotransmitter” (p. 46)


  • “believed to influence a great deal of our behavior, particularly the way we process information” (p. 46)
  • “extremely low activity levels of serotonin are associated with less inhibition and with instability, impulsivity, and the tendency to overreact to situations” (p. 46)
  • inhibitory neurotransmitter



Barlow, D. H. & Durand, V. M.  (2015).  Abnormal psychology: An integrative approach.  Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

Leonard-Zabel, A. M. (2016, October 19).  School neuropsychology: Linking assessment to intervention for students with learning disabilities, emotional disorders, and developmental disorders [conference presentation].  Concord, NH: NHASP.

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