Counting Neurotransmitter Molecules in the Brain

Two pictures are shown. The left picture shows the human brain. The right picture is a microscopic image that depicts two large irregularly shaped masses in a field of threadlike material interspersed with smaller, relatively round masses. The two larger masses are labeled with arrows and the phrase “Neuron cells.”
Figure 1 (a) A typical human brain weighs about 1.5 kg and occupies a volume of roughly 1.1 L. (b) Information is transmitted in brain tissue and throughout the central nervous system by specialized cells called neurons (micrograph shows cells at 1600× magnification). Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

OpenStax Chemistry 2e

The brain is the control center of the central nervous system. It sends and receives signals to and from muscles and other internal organs to monitor and control their functions; it processes stimuli detected by sensory organs to guide interactions with the external world; and it houses the complex physiological processes that give rise to our intellect and emotions. The broad field of neuroscience spans all aspects of the structure and function of the central nervous system, including research on the anatomy and physiology of the brain. Great progress has been made in brain research over the past few decades, and the BRAIN Initiative, a federal initiative announced in 2013, aims to accelerate and capitalize on these advances through the concerted efforts of various industrial, academic, and government agencies (more details available at

Specialized cells called neurons transmit information between different parts of the central nervous system by way of electrical and chemical signals. Chemical signaling occurs at the interface between different neurons when one of the cells releases molecules (called neurotransmitters) that diffuse across the small gap between the cells (called the synapse) and bind to the surface of the other cell. These neurotransmitter molecules are stored in small intracellular structures called vesicles that fuse to the cell wall and then break open to release their contents when the neuron is appropriately stimulated. This process is called exocytosis (see Figure 2). One neurotransmitter that has been very extensively studied is dopamine, C8H11NO2. Dopamine is involved in various neurological processes that impact a wide variety of human behaviors. Dysfunctions in the dopamine systems of the brain underlie serious neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.

Two diagrams are shown. In the upper left corner of the left diagram, an oval with a darkened center that has five short, branching appendages and one long tail-like appendage is shown and connected by an arrow to another image. This image depicts a close-up view of the oval section and its interaction with the tail-like portion of a similar structure. The close up view is composed of a narrow tube labeled “neuron” leading down to a bulbous base that holds thirteen circles filled with small dots. These circles are labeled “vesicles.” The base of the bulbous structure is next to a curved object labeled “neuron” and very small dots are emerging from the bulb’s base and flowing toward the curved structure. The gap in between the two structures is labeled “synapse,” and the small dots are labeled “neurotransmitters.” The diagram on the right depicts a molecule composed of six black spheres connected by alternating double and single bonds in a hexagonal ring with other spheres attached to it. Three of the black spheres are connected to one smaller, white sphere each. Two of the black balls are connected to a smaller red sphere each. Each red sphere is connected to a smaller, white sphere. One black sphere is connected to another black sphere. It is connected to two smaller, white spheres and another black sphere. This second black sphere is connected to two smaller white spheres, and a slightly smaller blue sphere. The blue sphere is connected to two smaller, white spheres.
Figure 2 (a) Chemical signals are transmitted from neurons to other cells by the release of neurotransmitter molecules into the small gaps (synapses) between the cells. (b) Dopamine, C8H11NO2, is a neurotransmitter involved in a number of neurological processes.

One important aspect of the complex processes related to dopamine signaling is the number of neurotransmitter molecules released during exocytosis. Since this number is a central factor in determining neurological response (and subsequent human thought and action), it is important to know how this number changes with certain controlled stimulations, such as the administration of drugs. It is also important to understand the mechanism responsible for any changes in the number of neurotransmitter molecules released—for example, some dysfunction in exocytosis, a change in the number of vesicles in the neuron, or a change in the number of neurotransmitter molecules in each vesicle.

Significant progress has been made recently in directly measuring the number of dopamine molecules stored in individual vesicles and the amount actually released when the vesicle undergoes exocytosis. Using miniaturized probes that can selectively detect dopamine molecules in very small amounts, scientists have determined that the vesicles of a certain type of mouse brain neuron contain an average of 30,000 dopamine molecules per vesicle (about 50 zmol). Analysis of these neurons from mice subjected to various drug therapies shows significant changes in the average number of dopamine molecules contained in individual vesicles, increasing or decreasing by up to three-fold, depending on the specific drug used. These studies also indicate that not all of the dopamine in a given vesicle is released during exocytosis, suggesting that it may be possible to regulate the fraction released using pharmaceutical therapies.



Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: