Gliding without GABA

You may blame your two left feet on your cerebellum, or your genetics. But maybe, it’s your GABA that’s to blame.

Whether you’ve got moves like Jagger, or you lose your balance like Larry and Moe, scientists have learned that GABA—a neurotransmitter that plays a role in the motor cortex—rise and fall when learning a new move.

Physical movement, from dancing and walking, to playing the violin, is mediated by GABA and the motor cortex, a brain region involved in planning and controlling movement.

When people are good at learning movement sequences, the level of GABA rises and falls in their brains. But for those—like myself—who struggle with learning new dance moves, GABA levels remain relatively stable.

This research isn’t just important when trying to figure out what to blame your two left feet on; for patients who have suffered a stroke that has affected their ability to control their body, understanding how neurotransmitter levels play a role can help in developing better treatments for patients.

Charlotte Stagg, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, had study participants learn a sequence of finger movements. Each sequences involved finger tapping on a pad of buttons. This finger-tapping was modeled on dance moves and the coordination needed in that act.

Of course, some participants found the task easy, while others found it near impossible. One subject couldn’t even learn the sequence. MRI scans were taken of the participants’ brains while they were stimulated with small electric currents. The electric currents were designed to mimic learning in the brain, while the scans measured GABA levels in the brain.

The MRI scans showed that GABA levels fell sharply in those who quickly learned the finger sequences, while GABA levels dropped only a bit in those who had issues learning the sequence.

This makes sense.

GABA itself is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it prevents neurons from forming connections with each other. When GABA levels are high, new neuronal connections can’t be easily formed, if at all, and this there inhibits learning. When GABA levels are low, new connections are more easily formed, and learning can take place.

The research is still in its infancy, and there are many players mediating movement, but if GABA continues to be a main player in the story of how our brains coordinate our movements, then those with motor issues can take heart at possible neurotransmitter-affecting treatment. And maybe, those of us with two left feet can have a chance at busting moves like Jagger-or at least not stumbling over our own feet every time the music comes on.

– Rania Hanna

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