We just had Canadian Thanksgiving here and aside from my growing discomfort with colonial history it is a good time to recognize the many things that I’m grateful for. It is also as good a time to find the science in the everyday.
Turkey is of course connected to the turkey stupor, which it turns out, has less to do with the turkey and more to do with the sheer quantity of food and amount of carbohydrates. However, turkey does contain the amino acid tryptophan, whicht the body will convert into serotonin. And seratonin may have an even bigger role in our lives than previously thought.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, this means that it sends signals between nerve cells (neurons). It has extremely diverse effects in the body helping to control bowel movements, trigger nausea, heal wounds, and regulate mood. It also contributes to whether you are awake or asleep based on which parts of your brain are stimulated and which receptors are being used. So called “normal” levels of serotonin are generally associated with feelings of happiness, calmness, increased focus, decreased anxiety, and improved emotional stability.
In a small study of just five patients who were undergoing brain surgery to treat either essential tremor or Parkinson’s disease, Bang et al (2020) were able to measure the presence of serotonin in real-time units of less than a second. One of the big findings was that serotonin was observed in relation to uncertainty. This is interesting because it links serotonin with processing the outside world. This was not something that had previously been connected with serotonin beyond its normal role in rewad processing.
Why does this matter? This research shows a potential role of serotonin in making decisions, especially decisions with uncertainty. This may have implications related to abnormal serotonin levels and dealing with uncertainty or making decisions in real-time.
Beyond the immediate implications though, what l find particularly fascinating is how much we are still learning about something like how communication works within our bodies and how important technological developments are for enabling discovery. In this case, we had technology that allowed us to look at the scale of minutes but this new approach enables discovery and investigation at scales of less than a second. Truly incredible what we can still learn.