Field of Science

Acetylcholine and Cranky Suburbanites

I went to work today sporting a pair of molecular earrings: serotonin and norepinephrine to be precise. Two non-chemist colleagues spotted them and wondered about the significance of the molecules (and where to get them!). "Serotonin for serenity, norepinephrine for energy." "Ah, you're in balance then!" When I walked past ten minutes later they were browsing the molecular earring site and trying to figure out how to pronounce "acetyl" (as in acetylcholine). The site says that acetylcholine can promote creativity, learning, dreaming and memory. In passing, I noted that many pesticides are acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, they block the breakdown of acetycholine, which can have nasty effects on the body. Which led one colleague to wonder if that was why "suburban cul-de-sacs were such cranky places!"

Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter, a small molecule that plays a role in transmitting signals along neurons. Originally found to stimulate the vagus nerve (responsible for controlling heart rate, among other things), it was christened vagustoff by Otto Loewi who eventually won the Nobel prize for its discovery. Curare blocks the receptor sites for acetylcholine, thus preventing muscle contraction (and causing respiratory arrest). You can have too much of a good thing, the venom of black widows causes synapses to be flooded with acetylcholine.


vagus is from the Latin for wandering, which is what that nerve does...


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  2. Thanks for the information, and for finding the time to share it! I live on a cul-de-sac myself and am held in contempt by my chem lawn neighbors, yet I am the happier person!


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