Skip to content
Home » GABA: What It Is, Functions, and Disorders – Verywell Health

GABA: What It Is, Functions, and Disorders – Verywell Health

Michelle Pugle is an expert health writer with nearly a decade of experience contributing accurate and accessible health information to authority publications.
Steven Gans, MD, is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid, a type of chemical in your body that’s important for keeping you healthy and keeping your body systems functioning properly. GABA’s main job is to work as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it blocks messages sent between the nerve cells and the brain or spinal cord. 
Specifically, GABA blocks certain nerve signals in the brain to reduce fear, anxiety, and stress. Without the right level of GABA in the body, conditions such as anxiety disorders may become worse.
This article explains what GABA is, how it works, and what happens if there’s not enough GABA activity in the body. It also covers how GABA activity can be regulated with medication and supplements.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the nervous system. Messages travel along the nervous systems via neurons that pass signals to each other. For example, they might carry a message from the brain to your hand to move away from danger, or they may carry a message from the hand to the brain saying a pot is hot.
As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA blocks certain nerve transmission, or messages. It works by preventing the stimulation of neurons. This means that a neuron that receives a message along the way doesn't act on it, so the message isn't sent on to other neurons.
GABA stops messages related to extreme moods. In other words, GABA calms your nervous system down, helping you to not become overly anxious or afraid.
Problems with GABA signaling seem to play a role in disorders that affect your mental health or your nervous system. These are known as psychiatric and neurologic conditions.
Inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA block certain brain signals and decrease nervous system activity. Another inhibitory neurotransmitter, serotonin, helps stabilize mood.
Excitatory neurotransmitters have the opposite effect: They promote certain brain signals and increase nervous system activity. An example of an excitatory neurotransmitter is norepinephrine..  
When messages, called “action potentials,” are received by a neuron, the message is passed on to another neuron via a series of steps.
However, about 30% to 40% of neurons contain GABA. These are called GABAergic neurons. When GABAergic neurons receive a message, they release GABA into the synapses where the message is supposed to be carried on. The release of GABA starts a reaction that makes it less likely that the action potential will be passed on to other neurons.
GABA activity only lasts milliseconds, but it has significant consequences. In the brain, it results in a calming effect. In the spinal cord, this process allows for sensory information integration, which means it allows your nervous system to process and organize information coming in from the senses.
GABA is an amino acid that helps regulate your mood. It's released by certain neurons that carry messages along the nervous system. GABA acts to stop messages from being transmitted. Specifically, it affects how the body reacts to feelings of anxiety, fear, and stress, and it allows the nervous system to better process information.
If GABA isn’t released properly by GABAergic neurons, it can affect mental health and contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders (disorders of the brain and nervous system). A lack of proper GABA activity may play a role in schizophrenia, autism, Tourette’s syndrome, and other disorders.

GABA activity helps you have a healthy response to stress by preventing neurons from sending out messages that would "fire up" the body.
Many things can impact GABA levels, which could contribute to anxiety. For example, research shows that external stressors and early life stressors can directly influence how GABA functions in the body, creating imbalances.
A lack of GABA is associated with problems carrying out normal mental functions. This is known as cognitive deficits. This is very important for people who have schizophrenia, a psychiatric disorder that causes issues with proper thinking and behavior.
Problems with specific elements of the nervous system, GABA-A receptors, have been associated with features of schizophrenia, including hallucinations and cognitive impairment.

While the exact cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is still unclear, animal and human studies have found associations between abnormalities in GABA activity and ASD symptoms. There seems to be a relationship between GABA and how a person with autism has limited interests or difficulty with social interaction.
The studies related to autism seem to show that GABA doesn't work alone. An imbalance in this neurotransmitter may affect other neurotransmitters and receptors, or GABA may be affected by other them.
Lower levels of GABA in the body have also been associated with major depressive disorder (MDD). This is likely because GABA works in collaboration with other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which is also involved in mood disorders.
Research also suggested that improper GABA functioning may be a factor that contributes to suicide.
Proper GABA activity plays an important role in several diseases, including neurodegenerative disorders in which the body’s nerve cells break down or die.
 Among these disorders are:
Other disorders related to GABA activity include the following:
Stress and other factors can affect the development of the nervous system and GABA activity. This can lead to too little GABA, which may play a role in disorders related to brain function and mood. Studies show a connection between a lack of the amino acid and schizophrenia, autism, depression, and anxiety. 
GABA activity (too little or too much) is also associated with neurodegenerative diseases. Other illnesses may be caused by the body not properly making GABA or other substances getting in the way of it functioning properly.

GABA occurs naturally in the body. In cases where there seems to be a problem with GABA activity, your doctor may prescribe medication. Supplements are also sometimes used to regulate functions controlled by GABA.
Drugs that are used to regulate GABA signaling include:
GABA is also available in non-prescription supplement form. Manufacturers sell natural GABA in pills and capsules at a range of prices, claiming their products can help reduce stress and help you feel calm and relaxed. It can be sold alone or blended with other substances like melatonin, which promotes sleep. 
As with many other herbal supplements, pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid taking GABA supplements since there isn't strong research showing it's safe.
If you're thinking about taking GABA supplements, talk to your doctor first. 
Alcohol and other drugs can affect GABA production or activity. These substances can be abused by people trying to self-medicate.
Alcohol, for example, promotes GABA receptor activity. This can create a temporary feeling of calm and relaxation. But the effect is artificial and risky. You won't get the same effect over time. People may build up a tolerance, which makes the body require more of the substance to achieve the same feeling.
Overdosing or taking multiple GABA-modulating drugs (for example, taking GABA supplements and drinking alcohol) can result in respiratory depression (slow breathing) due to increased GABA signaling in the brain stem.
While your body’s natural production of GABA has many benefits, artificial means of altering GABA activity can lead to serious problems. Abusing certain substances may lead to toxicity.
If you’re using GABA medication or supplements and other GABA-affecting drugs like alcohol and benzodiazepines, talk with your doctor. 
To learn more about substance abuse visit:
There’s still much that’s not understood about GABAergic neurons and GABA activity. It’s clear, though, that mood and mental health are affected by this amino acid. It also plays a role in neurodegenerative diseases and other disorders. Doctors may be able to prescribe medications to help regulate GABA activity and treat these problems. These drugs need to be properly administered to avoid dependence or abuse.
There’s little research to support the benefits of over-the-counter supplements. They may offer some help, but they also pose a great threat to your health if you use those supplements with alcohol or some other drugs.

Talk to your doctor if you're experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression before self-treating with over-the-counter. Mood and anxiety disorders are complex and require professionally directed treatment.
GABA-modulating drugs can have a powerful pull for people struggling to relax, calm themselves, and sleep. But they carry a high risk of abuse, which can create even more problems. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use issues or abuse, seeking professional treatment sooner rather than later can help minimize the negative effects.
So far, scientists have identified over 60 distinct neurotransmitters. These are divided into three groups based on their function: excitatory neurotransmitters, inhibitory neurotransmitters, and modulatory neurotransmitters.
A deficiency in GABA activity can contribute to certain mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and depression. It's also involved in some physical conditions, including Huntington's disease, dystonia, and muscle spasticity.
Sign up for our Health Tip of the Day newsletter, and receive daily tips that will help you live your healthiest life.
Thank you, {{}}, for signing up.
There was an error. Please try again.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. GABA Neurotransmitter.
Tanaka C., Taniyama K. (1992) The Role of GABA in the Peripheral Nervous System. Erdö S.L. (eds) GABA Outside the CNS. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
Williams College. GABAa Receptors: A Representative Family of Ligand-Gated Receptors.
Deidda G, Bozarth IF, Cancedda L. Modulation of GABAergic transmission in development and neurodevelopmental disorders: investigating physiology and pathology to gain therapeutic perspectives. Front Cell Neurosci. 2014;8. doi:10.3389/fncel.2014.00119
Hou X, Rong C, Wang F, Liu X, Sun Y, Zhang HT. Gabaergic system in stress: implications of gabaergic neuron subpopulations and the gut-vagus-brain pathway. Neural Plasticity. 2020;2020:e8858415. doi:10.1155%2F2020%2F8858415
de Jonge JC, Vinkers CH, Hulshoff Pol HE, Marsman A. GABAergic Mechanisms in Schizophrenia: Linking Postmortem and In Vivo StudiesFront Psychiatry. 2017 Aug 11;8:118. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2017.00118.x
Horder J, Petrinovic MM, Mendez MA, Bruns A, Takumi T, Spooren W, Barker GJ, Künnecke B, Murphy DG. Glutamate and GABA in autism spectrum disorder-a translational magnetic resonance spectroscopy study in man and rodent models. Transl Psychiatry. 2018 May 25;8(1):106. doi: 10.1038/s41398-018-0155-1
Sergeeva OA, Kletke O, Kragler A, Poppek A, Fleischer W, Schubring SR, Görg B, Haas HL, Zhu XR, Lübbert H, Gisselmann G, Hatt H. Fragrant dioxane derivatives identify beta1-subunit-containing GABAA receptors. J Biol Chem. 2010 Jul 30;285(31):23985-93. doi: 10.1074/jbc.M110.103309
Zhao J, Verwer RWH, Gao SF, et al. Prefrontal alterations in GABAergic and glutamatergic gene expression in relation to depression and suicide. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2018;102:261-274. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2018.04.020
Foliaki ST, Schwarz B, Groveman BR, et al. Neuronal excitatory-to-inhibitory balance is altered in cerebral organoid models of genetic neurological diseases. Molecular Brain. 2021;14(1):156. doi:10.1186%2Fs13041-021-00864-w
Ye H, Kaszuba S. Inhibitory or excitatory? Optogenetic interrogation of the functional roles of GABAergic interneurons in epileptogenesis. J Biomed Sci. 2017;24(1):93. doi:10.1186/s12929-017-0399-8
Michigan Parkinson Foundation. GABA-A, A New Avenue in PD Research
Brousse G, Arnaud B, Vorspan F, et al. Alteration of glutamate/gaba balance during acute alcohol withdrawal in emergency department: a prospective analysis. Alcohol and Alcoholism. 2012;47(5):501-508. doi:10.1093/alcalc/ags078

Thank you, {{}}, for signing up.
There was an error. Please try again.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *