Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter—a chemical messenger that helps carry signals across a nerve synapse. It was the first neurotransmitter to be discovered, and has been heavily studied. It is also the most abundant neurotransmitter and is present in both the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system.
What Does Acetylcholine Do?
Acetylcholine serves both excitatory and inhibitory functions, which means it can both speed up and slow down nerve signals. In the central nervous system, its role is primarily excitatory. It plays a role in arousal, memory, learning, and neuroplasticity. It also helps to engage sensory functions upon waking, helps people sustain focus, and acts as part of the brain’s reward system. Acetylcholine helps maintain rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the part of sleep during which people dream. In the peripheral nervous system, it helps with the contraction of cardiac, skeletal, and smooth muscles. Imbalances in acetylcholine can contribute to the development of myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disorder that causes muscle weakness and fatigue.
Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease
The cholinergic portion of the brain is the area of the brain that produces acetylcholine. Damage to this portion of the brain is linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Many people with Alzheimer’s disease have altered levels of acetylcholine. Cholinesterase inhibitors are commonly prescribed to people with Alzheimer’s disease in an effort to slow the development of the illness by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine.
Acetylcholine also plays a role in Parkinson’s disease. Acetylcholine works together with the neurotransmitter dopamine to enable smooth movements. When there is an imbalance between acetylcholine and dopamine, movements can be shaky and uneven, a hallmark of Parkinson’s disease.
- Alzheimer’s disease medication fact sheet. (n.d.). National Institute on Aging. Retrieved from http://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/publication/alzheimers-disease-medications-fact-sheet
- American Psychological Association. APA Concise Dictionary of Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
- Background to Parkinson’s Disease. (n.d.). Brown University Division of Biology and Medicine. Retrieved from http://biomed.brown.edu/Courses/BI108/BI108_1999_Groups/Neuroelectrodes_Team/background.html
- Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford Dictionary of Psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Last Updated: 08-4-2015
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JesseJanuary 21st, 2015 at 11:35 AM
I don’t believe this
Janet PurcelDecember 11th, 2016 at 6:04 PM
I see a lot of my symptoms.
jayFebruary 26th, 2018 at 5:25 PM
it does say it helps, not is directly causes such and such
SeanJanuary 16th, 2021 at 3:38 PM
I would have thought that the Auto Immune disease (Myasthenia Gravis) is the cause of Imbalances in acetylcholine, rather than the result of it!
AlmattiDecember 30th, 2021 at 9:47 AM
I came upon this Amino Acid some months ago. I just started taking it (actually only 1/3 of the suggested amount each day). I don’t know if it’s a Placebo effect, but it seems to offer some relaxation to my overly sensitized Nerves. I have peripheral Nerve damage due to numerous locations of Spinal Stenosis . Disc Degeneration everywhere and arthritic condition. I’m 70 , male, and suffer with Chronic Pain and stiffness with Chronic Anxiety with bouts of Depression. This “seems” to help me (and I also added Saffron tablets as well). A little more time will tell I guess. I’m hoping it is REAL.
AnitaMarch 2nd, 2022 at 1:15 PM
Amazing. So so helpful. ThAnkyou. My husband has been diagnosed as early stages Altzeimers and is already losing bits of memory. He’s tired. Not sleeping in night has bladder problem after turp operation. Takes inhalers for copd. Now after reading this I am giving him only ventolin which is supposed to be good. And I can see now that his acetylcholine is less so I am buying some from Amazon. Wish me luck. He’s a retired bp 83 yrs. but I’m not going to give up. Thankyou for this article. Now I understand about cholinergics versus anticholinergics
Hope you post me more. I need help please
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