GABA – the Science

Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a naturally occurring substance that acts as neurotransmitter in the brain and nervous system. GABA inhibits certain brain signals and decreases activity in your nervous system. In humans, GABA produces a calming effect, making people feel sociable, and reducing feelings of anxiety, stress and fear.

If you’ve heard of GABA, you’re in a minority. If you know how it works, then you’re in a very select group. For the rest, perhaps you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of GABA before. Excellent question, and we’ve got some answers to that below.

GABA is constantly at work in our brains, regulating our behaviour, our mood and our emotions. And science is making leaps in understanding how it works, how it interacts with other neurotransmitters, how it can help us to stay healthy and well.

And these scientific advances are coinciding with people becoming much more concerned about the health impacts of their consumption choices. They’re demanding more information. And with it, they’re demanding more choices.

GABA Labs is responding to these demands by making alternatives to alcohol a reality, and sharing what we learn on that journey.

Here’s a small start in that direction.

The human brain contains an estimated 86 billion neurons. Those billions of brain cells communicate by passing chemical messages at the synapse, the small gap between cells, in a process called neurotransmission. Those chemical messages are unique molecules called neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit a message from a nerve cell across the synapse to a target cell. The target can be another nerve cell, or a muscle cell, or a gland cell. They are chemicals made by the nerve cell specifically to transmit the message.

A neurotransmitter influences a neuron in one of three ways: excitatory, inhibitory or modulatory.

These billions of neurotransmitter molecules work constantly to keep our brains functioning, managing everything from our breathing to our heartbeat to our learning and concentration levels. They can also affect a variety of psychological functions such as fear, mood, pleasure, and joy.

There are more than 40 neurotransmitters in the human nervous system; some of the most important are acetylcholine, norepinephrine, dopamine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, serotonin, and histamine.

Further reading:

No, we’re not.

GABA Labs is developing ingredients that aim to enhance GABA activity in the brain and nervous system, thereby increasing sociability and conviviality while reducing anxiety.

GABA Labs will bring its beverage compound “Alcarelle” and its active botanical ingredient, known as “ABI”, to market and license this technology to the Drinks Industry. They will create new ranges of drinks that give some of the social and conviviality benefits of alcohol whilst reducing the risks of harm.

Ingredients Compounds

GABA Labs is working on a range of compounds that aims to mimic the positive impacts of alcohol – sociability, less anxiety, more conviviality – while avoiding the harm alcohol causes. We’ll be licensing these ingredients technologies to Drinks Companies so they can make a whole new generation of healthy drinking choices for adult social drinkers.

In order for this to come to market, Alcarelle will have to go through a rigorous regulatory process. This is likely to take between three and five years.

Botanical Ingredients

GABA Labs’ research into GABAergic molecules in food grade plants has led the scientific team to investigate extracts from approved food-plants, already well-established in the food and drinks market. We combine these to create active botanical ingredients for license to drinks companies.

Before we answer this question, it’s important to know that there are different types of alcohol – here are the main three:

  • ethanol – for drinking, aka “grain alcohol”
  • methanol – an industrial solvent, aka “wood alcohol”
  • isopropanol – disinfectant, found in many hand sanitizers, aka “rubbing alcohol”

So the question is better put as, “Is GABA like ethanol?”

Well… in some ways, no. In others, yes. It’s complicated.

GABA is a neurotransmitter that is produced in the brain and helps us feel calm and relaxed. Ethanol is a substance we consume because we like SOME of the impacts it has on our mental and emotional states.

Here’s how ethanol affects a human.

At low doses, 1-2 units or 15-10gms of ethanol (one to two drinks) a blood ethanol level of 40-100mg% is produced. At this blood concentration, ethanol helps reduce anxiety primarily by activating GABA to reduce brain excitability. This explains why ethanol is so popular at parties where many of us use it to overcome the natural social anxiety about talking to strangers. This effect has been long understood by airlines, who quickly offer ethanol on a flight to calm the anxiety of air-passengers who dislike flying.

But at higher concentrations (blood ethanol >150 mg%) ethanol begins to act as an antagonist at the NMDA receptor leading to memory block which we colloquially called “blackouts”. Impaired judgement also features at these concentrations.

At higher levels (blood ethanol >400mg%, as would occur after drinking a litre of vodka) then these two effects of ethanol – the increase in GABA inhibition and the blockade of glutamate excitation – can combine to produce a lethal level of sedation and respiratory depression.

In terms of health impacts, alcohol (strictly speaking, ethanol) is in a class of its own, and very different from GABA.

Ethanol causes significant damage to human tissue, particularly the brain and nervous system, heart, liver and pancreas. It has a social impact as well – ethanol causes real harm to almost every family in the developed world, and is responsible for measurable economic harm to the economy and to society. The global harms of ethanol include an estimated £500 Billion of costs and c.3 Million premature deaths, per year.

As awareness of these harms increases, many consumers are turning away from ethanol as their beverage of choice for social gatherings. These people have a growing interest in what choices there are beyond ethanol.

Further reading:

The nervous system is made up of hundreds of billions of individual nerve cells called neurons. They serve as the body’s wiring. Nerve signals are transmitted through the length of a neuron as an electrical impulse. When a nerve impulse reaches the end of the neuron it can jump over to the next cell using chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.

In the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and the spinal cord, neurotransmitters pass from neuron to neuron.

Neurotransmitters are stored at the end of each neuron. When neurotransmitters reach a neighbouring neuron, the neurotransmitters click into specialized receptor sites much as a key fits into a lock. When enough neurotransmitters attach to the receptors, the neuron “fires”, sending an electrical impulse down its length.

GABA functions as an inhibitory neurotransmitter – meaning that it blocks nerve impulses. As such it is the opposite of Glutamate which acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter, encouraging nerves to “fire” and send a nerve impulse.

If you didn’t have enough GABA, your nerve cells would fire too often and too easily. Anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, seizure disorders, and numerous other conditions including addiction, headaches, Parkinson’s syndrome, and cognitive impairment are all related to low GABA activity. A good example to help understand this effect is caffeine. Caffeine inhibits GABA release. The less GABA, the more nerve transmissions occur. Think what too much coffee feels like: that is the sensation of glutamate without enough GABA.

Too much GABA can lead to hypersomnia or daytime sleepiness. At extreme levels it can bring about a coma.

The brain is performing a constant balancing act, trying to maintain equilibrium across all the neurotransmitters.

GABA is a natural substance that is widely distributed in nature among microorganisms, plants and animals. It is most prevalent and developed in mammals, and particularly in those that rear and take care of their young. It has been a key factor in human’s evolution as social beings.

GABA was there at the beginning.

  • 4 billion years ago, chemical activity began on earth out of a mixture of small molecules, one of which was GABA
  • 3.5 billion years ago, when single cell life emerged, GABA was a key molecule in the process of making energy in cells.
  • 3 billion years ago, multicell organisms appeared and Glutamate became a mechanism for communication between cells.
  • GABA’s role then evolved to act as a moderator of the effect of Glutamate, and it continues this function into present times.

This is a very good question. Especially since we’ve all heard of other neurotransmitters like serotonin, endorphins and dopamine. And it’s not like it’s unimportant – it plays a crucial role in health and wellbeing.

One explanation is that the date of its scientific confirmation as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system was relatively recent. Compare these: noradrenaline – 1945; serotonin – 1953; dopamine – 1958; GABA – 1971. GABA is catching up with the others in terms of research, and we regularly seeing new scientific breakthroughs in knowledge about it.

Scientific breakthroughs can sometimes accelerate awareness, but often it’s changes to public policy that create the biggest impact. Take Japan as an example.

In 2015, the Japanese government introduced a new food classification, “Food with Functional Claims”. This scheme involved reduced (though still stringent) certification requirements. This unleashed a food innovation revolution in Japan, and GABA featured heavily in it.

In fewer than 4 years, GABA became a well-established food additive in Japan, and everyone there has heard of it. You can find GABA chocolate, GABA drinks, GABA cakes. Their functional claims center around relaxation, dealing with stress and improving sleep.

Japan proves that there is a latent demand for such products, once they are certified as safe. And we see a similar demand within the younger generations in western cultures. These groups are not only demanding more information about their consumption choices. They’re actually demanding more choices.

GABA Labs is responding to these demands by making alternatives to alcohol a reality, and sharing information on the way. We’d like to see GABA as well known here (initially in the UK) as it is in Japan. And we’re prepared to work to make that happen.