Exploring Human Potential

5 Things We Need To Know About Serotonin

Posted on | May 3, 2011 | 1 Comment

Mike Magee

What do you really know about serotonin? Probably about as much as I do – neurotransmitter, implicated in depression, one of the S’s in SSRI’s, featured blobettes in the classic Zoloft animated commercial.(1) What else? Lack of it is no cause for personal shame and can be treated, but treating it (especially in the young) may increase the risk of suicide.(2)

Here are 5 things we need to know about serotonin.

First, it was identified in intestinal cells by Italian scientist Vitorio Erspamer. He called the chemical “enteramine” and demonstrated that it caused bowel cells to contract. In 1948 scientists at the Cleveland Clinic identified the same chemical – this time a vasoconstrictor substance in blood serum. In 1953, it was also found in brain extracts. Combining the words “serum” and “tone”, the Cleveland team came up with “serotonin”. Same chemical as enteramine, but apparently a better name – so serotonin stuck.(3)

Second, it’s a tiny molecule – just 10 carbon atoms, 12 hydrogens,  2 nitrogens and 1 oxygen. It derives from the amino acid, tryptophan. 90% of the serotonin in our bodies is produced by specialized gut cells. The chemical plays a role in intestinal peristalsis, but eventually migrates out of tissues into the blood stream. It is actively stored in plateletes and released as part of clot formation with vasoconstriction helping to control bleeding.(4)

Third, only 5% of our body store of serotonin exists in the brain, and this is sealed away from its cousin serotonin by the blood-brain barrier. SSRI’s like Prozac and Zoloft came into vogue in the 1990’s. These “serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors” prevented the small neurotransmitter chemical from being rapidly removed from the synaptic cleft where it is deposited to carry messages from one never cell to another. By slowing reuptake, it functionally increased the staying power of the chemical. In some cases, this empowering of limited serotonin helped reverse the symtoms of depression. Over the past decade, we learned that serotonin has at least 15 different and distinct protein receptors in the brain. Of course, pharmaceutical companies are fast at work developing chemicals to activate these receptors.(5)

Fourth, a great deal of the current research into serotonin is not about neurotransmitters at all. It’s about embryology and adult tissue formation. It turns out that at about 8 weeks of gestation, the mother’s placenta turns huge stores of tryptophan into serotonin and ships them directly to a selective portion of the brain right above the spinal cord. This serotonin bath instigates rapid growth of new neural connections. Serotonin is a hormone for the developing brain – think baby brain cells on hormones.(6)

Fifth, we have a long way to go to really understand serotonin. For example, adult healthy bones, it was recently discovered, rely on the balancing forces of brain serotonin induced bone cell growth and gut serotonin induced bone cell destruction.(7)  To which Cloumbia University bone biology researcher Patricia Ducy recently commented, “If I didn’t admit to being surprissed by the scope of serotonin function…I would be lying.” (8)

Which is to say, when it comes to serotonin there is more then meets the eye, and it’s not as simple as popping a pill.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee

1. Original Pfizer Zoloft commercial.
2. Olfson M et al. Antidepressant drug therapy and suicide in severely depressed children. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006;63:865-872.
3. Sjoerdsma A and Palfreyman MG. History of Serotonin and serotonin disorders. Annals of NY Academy of Sciences. Dec. 17, 2006.
4. Serotonin – compound structure. NCBI PubChem Compound.
5. Columbia University. January 13, 2010. Surplus of serotonin receptors may explain failure of antidepressants in some patients.
6. Bonnin A et al. A transient placental source of serotonin for the fetal forebrain. Nature.472, 347-350; April 21, 2011.
7. Yadav VK et al. Lrp5 Controls Bone Formation by inhibiting serotonin synthesis in the duodenum. Cell. 135:5, 825-837, nov.28, 2008.
8.Angier N. Job description grows for our utility hormone. NYT. D1. May 3, 2011


One Response to “5 Things We Need To Know About Serotonin”

  1. Leonardo Moscariello
    April 4th, 2013 @ 12:19 am

    It is commonly believed that depression is linked to an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. An important chemical is serotonin as this influences mood. The amino acid tryptophan comprises one of the building blocks of DNA and is required by the body to produce serotonin. It is an essential amino acid, which means your body can not produce it and so it must be obtained through diet.:

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