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Emotions, Serotonin and the Limbic System


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Emotions: The roles of serotonin, and limbic system





This report will review how emotions control our behavior; focusing on serotonin physiology, and the role of the Limbic System. I will report the role of serotonin and physiological changes in the body affecting the emotions of an individual, as well as other symptoms that will be dully noted in the report such as depression. The Limbic System controls the physiological changes which affect impulse control, anger and aggression, among other emotions and behaviors—I will summarize the relation between activity and several disorders. Studies have been done to understand serotonin and physiology in humans, and medications that can increase serotonin activity to offset negative affects (Hariri and Brown, 2006, p. 12). This report will summarize the details of how serotonin, and how the Limbic System affects human behaviors.


Emotions: The roles of serotonin, and limbic system

Emotions are generally defined as a state of mind that may reflect joy or fear, although, emotions also consist of patterns of physiological responses that lead to specific behaviors, which is what this paper will reflect. Specifically, the physiological responses of behavior are a direct reflection of how serotonin and the various areas of the Limbic System affect an individual. Imbalances of one or all three of these may constitute negative emotions such as fear, antisocial disorder, anger, poor impulse control, aggression, and depression. Research will show that emotions are not just a state of mind, but that behaviors are controlled by autonomic and hormonal responses that have biological significance. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT, is a hormone found in the brain, and is produced naturally in the pineal gland of the brain (Hariri and Brown, 2006, p. 12). A neurotransmitter is defined as specialized chemical messengers that support communication between nerve cells within the brain by conducting nerve impulses from one neuron to another. Some serotonin remains in the central nervous system while some flow through the blood stream to go to other organs. Inside the brain, neuronal clusters called raphe nuclei hold serotonin until its needed (Jonnakuty and Grangnoli, 2008, p. 303). Serotonin is necessary for your nerves and brain to work properly, regulate behaviors, and it has been shown to have an effect on mood (p. 303). Major components of the neural circuitry, including the primary regions of the brain associated with aggression, are now well established (Siegal and Douard, 2010, p. 23). In brief, the major sites of the brain where integration of this form of aggression takes place include the medial hypothalamus and the dorsal aspect of the midbrain periaqueductal gray matter (PAG) (Siegal and Douard, 2010, p. 23). It should be dully noted
EMOTION: SEROTONIN, AND LIMBIC SYSTEM 4 that it’s possible that serotonin’s effects upon aggressive behavior may occur by its actions on limbic structures such as the prefrontal cortex, which is know to powerfully modulate aggression and rage behavior (Siegal and Douard, 2010, p. 23). Serotonin is often referred to as the "feel good" chemical in the brain that promotes happiness and wellbeing. Low levels of serotonin are often implicated in the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders ranging from depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders

(Jonnakuty and Grangnoli, 2008, p. 302). High levels of serotonin can cause behaviors of

restlessness and extreme agitation (p. 302). Pharmaceutical drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, increase the level of serotonin activity in the brain and only enhance a signal that is already present in the same nerve that released it, but too weak to come through (Siegal and Douard, 2010, p. 21). One side effect of SSRIs is the potential for serotonin syndrome; is a potentially life threatening drug reaction that causes the body to have too much serotonin (p. 21). One way to test the hypothesis that serotonin modulates aggression is to regulate the intake of dietary tryptophan, the amino acid precursor essential for the synthesis of serotonin and to then determine the effects of such manipulation upon aggressive behavior (Siegal and Douard, 2010, p. 21). Studies done on six healthy men and women showed that dietary depletion of tryptophan can, in fact, reduce serotonin levels in the brain (Siegal and Douard, 2010, p. 21). The study done on the men and women’s estimated levels of brain serotonin levels were determined by lumbar puncture in which the serotonin metabolite in cerebrospinal fluid, 5-HIAA, was measured and provided empirical evidence that dietary alterations in levels of brain serotonin correlated with changes in aggressive behavior (Siegal and Douard, 2010, p. 21).

Another study was noted in the aggressive behavior in women (p. 21). Findings reported that

women subjected to tryptophan depletion displayed elevated levels of aggression scores, and when tryptophan were increased there was a decrease in aggression scores (Siegal and Douard, 2010, p. 21). Thus, the studies provide support for the hypothesis that dietary induced reduction in brain serotonin is associated with increases in aggressive behavior (Siegal and Douard, 2010,
p. 21). A greater understanding of how serotonin affects the brain is something the medical and scientific communities continue to explore, with hopes of improving targeted mental health treatments that deal with mood disorders (p. 21). A general consensus is that serotonin plays a critical role in the regulation of emotions and in the modulation of aggression in animals and humans, acting like a brake on the impulsiveness that leads to aggressive outbursts ((Braine, 2009, p. 160). The limbic system plays a big role in aggression and behaviors based on neural changes. The brain regions that are in the limbic system are: The Limbic Cortex, Hippocampal formation, Amygdala, Septal Area, and Hypothalamus. These intricately designed neural areas of the brain have a major influence in the way emotion is controlled (Rajmohan and Mohandas, 2007, p. 132). The Limbic system’s various structures affect behaviors and emotional responses that will be discussed to understand the complexity of the brain and the fate it holds as an individual’s emotional state is in the hands of neural malfunction. The Amydala, which looks like two almond shaped parts of the brain is located on the sides of the thalamus toward the end of the hippocampus. It’s important to know that the amygdala is a critical component of the neural molecule upon which enzyme acts that causes an

EMOTION: SEROTONIN, AND LIMBIC SYSTEM 6 emotional experience; involved particularly in the generation of fear, and anxiety (Anderson and Phelps, 2002, p. 1). Damage to the amygdala interferes with emotional reactions, and can make an individual a socially inept. In the case of having had removed the amygdala altogether showed that an individual couldn’t recognize the meaning of emotionally and socially important facial expressions from others, such as, one happy face in the middle of an angry crowd. This is important for recognizing overall emotion in faces and verbal tone in all levels of communication. When a study that was done on animals that during electrical stimulus applied to the amygdala--they responded with aggression. The study also stated that when the amygdala is removed the animals are very tame, no longer respond to anger, don’t respond to fear or sexual responses that they normally would. The hypothalamus, located below the thalamus and roughly the size of an almond, is one of the busiest parts of the brain. The hypothalamus is focused on homeostasis which can be defined as returning something to its original ‘setting’ point. An example would be to compare it to a thermostat… When the room (your body) gets to cold or hot, then a trigger (neurons) in the thermostat (hypothalamus) indicates to fix it by turning on the air conditioning or heater till the temperature is right again. The hypothalamus is responsible for hunger, thirst, response to pain, levels of pleasure, sex, anger, aggression, and regulates the autonomic nervous system (Braine, 2009, p. 157). The autonomic nervous system affects, respiratory rate, perspiration, heart rate, and indigestion (p. 157). A study on a cat was done by planting electrodes in the posterior of the hypothalamus and switched on, and in a split second- turned a friendly cat into an aggressive, spitting creature; and when it was turned off the cat went back to normal (p. 157). Disturbances to the hypothalamus having tumors attached to them can cause complex,
EMOTION: SEROTONIN, AND LIMBIC SYSTEM 7 behavioral-emotional reactions such as uncontrollable laughter and crying (Braine, 2009, p. 162). The tumors also caused heightened aggression, and specifically--defensive rage behavior (p. 162). Some other symptoms that arose were: episodic rage, emotional liability, abnormal appetite for the consumption of food, and intellectual deterioration and loss of memory (p. 162). Children with tumors on their hypothalamus experienced seizures, rage attacks, tantrums, cognitive deficits, and frequently early puberty (p. 162). Some of the functions of the various structures of the limbic system will show the different emotions, and autonomic responses (Rajmohan and Mohandas, 2007, p. 135). The role of the amygdala sets a value in food choices and intake (p. 136). The lateral nucleus of the hypothalamus is the center that tells someone they are hungry whereas the ventromedial nucleus functions as the center that tells someone they are satisfied or no longer hungry (Rajmohan and Mohandas, 2007, p. 136). Fear responses, both physical --‘fight or flight’ and emotional –being conscious of being afraid, are produced by the hypothalamus and amygdala. The destruction of the amygdala interferes with autonomic and endocrine responses as it no longer recognized fear (p.136). Amygdala is also involved in fear conditioning which is interupted by changes in synaptic strength at sensory inputs to the amygdala when long-term potentiation (LTP) disrupts the pathways of the amygdala (p.136). Imaging studies in the left amygdala have shown that memories last long after an event (p. 136). Studies in animals show that after the removal of the neocortex, and the destruction of the ventromedial hypothalamic nuclei and septal nuclei induces rage (p. 136). By stimulation of an area extending back through the lateral hypothalamus of the midbrain will result in a rage reaction (p. 136). A complacent disposition is the result of bilateral destruction of the amygdala (p. 136). However, the complacency turns into rage when the
EMOTION: SEROTONIN, AND LIMBIC SYSTEM 8 ventromedian nucleus is destroyed in the amygdala (p. 136). Emotions are mainly regulated by the limbic cortex, and when physical stimulation occurs it causes changes in respiration and blood pressure through the autonomic nervous system (p.136). Various parts of the hypothalamus, especially the lateral areas, cause stimulation by which fear and rage responses are mediated by the limbic system (p. 136). The “flight or fright response” is due to the massive sympathetic discharge during stress that is brought on by the stimulation of the ventromedial nucleus that produces aggressive behavior (p. 136). The release of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) from the cortical and limbic connections due to stress, comes from the paraventricular nuclei of the hypothalamus (p.136). CRH mediates responses to various stressors (p. 136). The reward by the brain when experiencing pleasure releases the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens including the amygdala resulting in addictive behavior (Rajmohan and Mohandas, 2007, p. 137). The amygdala plays a central role creating a conditioned response in cue-induced relapses due to certain stimuli (p. 137). Addictions linked with different types of behavior and stress, along with the way a drug is administered, results in release of dopamine in brain areas like hippocampus and amygdala (p. 137). The complicated network that motivates addictive behavior involves the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the nucleus accumbens core, the ventral palladium, and the ventral tegmental area (p. 137). This network is involved in the behavior to communicate in a way of wanting something desperately, such as taking drugs, and going after it (p. 137). Emotion’s powerful influence on learning and memory can make the transition of someone liking something to becoming addicted to it (p. 137). Amygdala, medial temporal lobe, and prefrontal cortex all collaborate in retrieving emotional memories and consolidating them (p. 137). Hippocampus stores new long-term,
EMOTION: SEROTONIN, AND LIMBIC SYSTEM 9 declarative memory before it goes permanently to the cortex (p. 137). The components of memory storage includes the hippocampus, the cortex, the parahippocampal regions and the entorhinal and perirhinal regions that are strongly connected to one another (p. 137). Social cognition refers understanding and dealing with other people’s personalities (Rajmohan and Mohandas, 2007, p. 137). Social cognition involves behaviors that recognize perception by observing others, emotional processing (p. 137). Together, social cognition regions support the complex behaviors that make people behave in certain ways (p. 137). The amygdala and cingulated gyrus are the structures in the limbic system that are involved in social learning (p. 137). Clinical implications related to the abnormalities in the limbic system will be listed and discussed as it relates to physiological changes of disorders or diagnoses. When the anterior cingulate and hippocampus fail to control the activities of the amygdala, it certainly may result in anxiety disorders (Rajmohan and Mohandas, 2007, p. 138). A person’s fears involve the activation in the combination of the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and anterior cingulate (p. 138).
Limbic structures are involved somehow to cognitive disturbances that cause attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (p. 139). Children and adolescents who have ADHD, have an enlarged hippocampus, which responds by creating disturbances in time perception, delayed aversions and impulsiveness associated with ADHD (p. 139). Correlations between the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex suggest abnormal behavior exhibiting difficulty tolerating delayed rewards that are seen in individuals with ADHD (p. 139). Problems involving social functioning and performance, as well as other aspects of social cognition, is what affect people diagnosed

EMOTION: SEROTONIN, AND LIMBIC SYSTEM 10 with Autism, and Asperger's syndrome (p. 139). The areas of the limbic system which mediate cognitive and affective processing involve the following structures: the cingulate gyrus and amygdala, (p. 139). In autism spectrum disorders, the basolateral circuit for social cognition is impeded (p. 139). The limbic system is a complicated network of structures that control some behaviors involved in motivation and emotion. The intricacy of the neural functionality in the limbic system with its various networks of circuits explains the psychiatric disorders due to neural malfunction (p. 139). The role of the amygdala in anxiety disorders and emotional memory has been identified by researchers to have a connection in relation to this region of the brain (p. 139). The integral role of the limbic system is salient in understanding human behavior and its dysfunctions (p. 139).



Anderson, A.K., Phelps, E.A. (2002). Is the human amygdala critical for the subjective experience of emotion? Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(5), 709-720.

Braine, M.E. (2009). The role of the hypothalamus: A key to the control of emotions and behavior. British Journal of Neuroscience Nursing, 5(4), 157-164.

Hariri, A.R., Brown, S.M. (2006). Serotonin. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(1),12.

Jonnakuty, C., Grangnoli, C. (2008). What do we know about serotonin? Journal of Cellular Physiology, 217, 301-306.

Rajmohan, V., Mohandas, E. (2007). Limbic System. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 49(2): 132–139. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.33264
Siegal, A., Douard, J. (2010). Who’s flying the plane: Serotonin levels, aggression, and free will. Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 34, 20-29. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2010.11.004

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