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The Anatomy & Physiology of Neurotransmission

Anatomy of a 'Neuron'   Anatomy of the 'synapse'   How messages are 'transmitted'   The 'Classic Backline' & Neurotransmission  Neurotransmitters





Don’t be ‘put off’ reading this section, based purely on the seemingly academic title. Despite being a complex subject in its entirety, the basic subject matter is relatively easy to comprehend and is particularly vital in the understanding of behaviour, mood, addictions & substance use/abuse and the physiological effects of aspects of the sport.  


To begin with, the title simply refers to how the brain and the relevant nerves communicate with the body’s organs, muscles, glands and how information is passed from neuron (nerve) to neuron; from source to target. 


Some of the names for neurotransmitters & hormones and terms relating to these have already been identified and mentioned in the section on ‘Biochemical factors for behaviour’ in the 'Players Section'.  


All activity governing thinking, memory, mood, emotions & feelings, movement, breathing, swallowing, digestion, hunger, the senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing) etc. is as a result of neurotransmission. Certainly, hormones, enzymes and other ‘biochemical’ agents are also involved, though the overall governing of bodily functions relate to the activity within the nerve pathways of our body, and particularly in our brains. 


A ‘nerve pathway’ is a succession of neurons that send electrical signals, impulses or messages from a ‘source’ to a ‘target’. They are separated in their journey by microscopic ‘gaps’ called synapses where substances (chemicals) known as neurotransmitters are released from the sending end of a neuron, across the synapse to the receptors on the receiving neuron. This transmission allows for a continuation of electrical current or desired activity to & from the targeted cell, muscle, gland etc. 




Anatomy of a Neuron



Anatomy of a Neuron



A ‘Neuron’ consists of (1) the cell body with nucleus (2) ‘Axons’ that carry an electrical impulse away from the cell (3) ‘Synapse’ –where chemicals (neurotransmitters) are released and interchanged & (4) ‘Dendrites’ (on another cell) that receive the signal. 



Anatomy of the 'Synapse'



The ‘Synapse’ is the microscopic junction or ‘gap’ between the neurons and where neurotransmitters are released and taken up, inhibited, modulated or destroyed by enzymes; where transmission of impulses & signals occur. One end (the axon) releases neurotransmitters and the other receives. In a healthy state, this allows everything in the mind and body to function ‘normally’. Neurotransmission in the synapse occurs at less than 1/5000 of a second. 




How messages are transmitted



Synapse & neurotransmitters


To better understand the workings of a basic ‘nerve pathway’, try to visualize the familiar ‘backline’ movement from ‘scrum base’ to ‘winger’ across the field (sideline to sideline). Each pass could be considered similar to the transmission across a synaptic cleft to the next neuron. The final target, the winger, scores in the corner, this being the desired result of the initial passage of the ball (the signal) from the scrum to the tryline. 


Through the utilization of this analogy, one can see the problems that may arise in certain football scenarios and how this can aid in a better comprehension of problems that can occur in the brain under certain conditions and neuronal transmission. 


For example: The ‘classic’ ball movement in the backline involves each player drawing their man and passing with sufficient speed & efficiency so as to create an overlap and avoid any sliding defence. If one of those players involved is inebriated, the likelihood of an incomplete passage of play is high; possibly a spilled ball, poor or slow pass, being tackled or passing too soon, as a result of impaired cognitive functioning, misperception or poor judgment. The same applies to the synapses in the nerve pathways in our brains. 


What would it be like to have a centre or five-eight ‘mellowed out’ on marijuana, or ‘hyped’ on speed? Would a schizophrenic or ‘manic’ bipolar sufferer contribute to successful execution of a backline move? I doubt it, yet many of the substances consumed by individuals can create internal, neurological abnormalities and dysfunction within the mind and body, similar to those one could imagine with this analogy. The same applies to disorders such as depression or organic illness. The ‘backline’ malfunction of the mind can have disastrous results.  




The 'Classic' backline & Neurotransmission 




Pass - initial neurotransmission




Backline passing



















The ‘pass’ in football relates to the ‘neurotransmitters’ within nerve pathways. Just as the ball is progressed from one player to the next, so is the electrical impulse of a neuronal pathway progressed via the transmission of chemicals across the synapse; to the next neuron. 


These neurotransmitters or their ability to function normally and effectively can be drastically and adversely affected by substance use and abuse, mental health disorders, congenital defects and abnormalities, injury and organic illness. 


Why is it that you cannot walk a straight line when drunk, or become paranoid after smoking particularly potent marijuana, or aggressive when using speed or ecstasy; even experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations from certain illicit substances? The answer is the alterations to the neurotransmitters in the synapses or the effect on the synapses themselves. The effects can vary from minor or temporary to severe and possibly permanent. Also the targets of these substances or illnesses will result in manifested, observable changes in behaviour and thinking; depending on the neurotransmitters and synapses involved and the areas of the brain in which they work. 




©2008 Waldel Pty Ltd



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