The Chemistry of Learning


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Learning is essentially the process of filing information away, and retrieving it again… hopefully. I chose to investigate this process further and ask what connection learning has with chemistry. All of our lives are undoubtedly affected by learning from the first second we can use our brains. New neural connections form all the time and most are strengthened by school or sports practice or memorization. While it may seem that we only experience true learning in a school setting, in the end, without learning, we would simply not be.

Composition of ...

  • neurotransmitters

    • serotonin C₁₀H₁₂N₂O

    • norepinephrine C₈H₁₁NO₃

    • acetylcholine C7NH16O2+

  • brain

    • frontal lobes - short term memory

    • limbic systems - declarative memory

    • cortical systems - declarative memory

    • hippocampus - declarative memory

    • anterior cingulate cortex (part of the cerebral cortex connected with the prefrontal cortex) - declarative memory

    • amygdala - declarative memory

    • cerebellum - procedural memory

  • vitamins

    • vitamin B-6 C₈H₁₁NO₃

    • folic acid C19H19N7O6

    • niacin C6H5NO2

    • iron Fe

    • vitamin C C6H8O6

  • synapses

    • tiny space between neurons

    • measured in nanometers

  • neurons

    • axons

    • cell body (soma)

    • dendrites

Main Chemicals, Compounds, Components

Neurons and Synapses work hand in hand to exchange chemical and electrical signals allowing each and every one of us to learn.


A neuron is a nerve cell that is the basic building block of the nervous system located in the grey and white matter of the brain. Nerve cells transmit nerve signals to, from, and within the brain. Neurons are similar to other cells in the human body in a number of ways, but the one key difference between neurons and other cells is that neurons are specialized to transmit information throughout the body and brain. The neuron consists of a cell body with branching dendrites (signal receivers) and an axon, which conduct the nerve signal. At the other end of the axon, the axon terminals transmit the electro-chemical signal across a synapse. Any time you move a muscle or think a thought neurons are involved.


A synapse is a tiny gap between neurons found in the grey and white matter of the brain. It is used when an electrical impulse travels along an axon which triggers the nerve-ending of a neuron to release neurotransmitters which diffuse across the synapse and bind with receptor molecules on the next neuron. The receptor molecules on the second neuron bind only to the specific chemicals released from the first neuron which stimulates the second neuron to transmit the electrical impulse. A synapse is fired like this basically all the time, any time you think or move or feel or your heart beats or you breathe or really do anything at all.

Chemistry's Role

Learning occurs when synapses activated prior can be fired more simultaneously. A synapse firing looks like this… The brain stores a piece of information upon receiving it, and this process is called neurogenesis. Needing to remember or use the piece of information again increases the speed that the neuron fires. This is where the true learning happens. A neurotransmitter is triggered by an electrical impulse when you try to remember something or do something or practice something. The receptor either passes the chemical on or stops it depending on the type of message and the type of receptor. If it passes it on, the receptor molecules on the other side of the synapse receive the chemical which triggers an electrical impulse continuing the process until it is stopped. Once the synapses begin to fire almost simultaneously, you have mastered the information or skill you are learning.

Background Research

Learning is when the brain strengthens or creates new neural connections or uses these connections more effectively. We start by storing something to connect new information with and then we begin to use these connections more fluently. Synapses (gaps between neurons) and neurons are central to this process.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that make different chemical reactions in your brain, allowing you to do or think or remember anything. Common examples of these chemicals are serotonin, norepinephrine and acetylcholine, but there are 35 or more neurotransmitters everyone uses daily. These chemicals are made from amino acids from dietary protein, while numerous vitamins and minerals required for their production. Specifically vitamin B-6, folic acid, niacin, iron and vitamin C are central to healthy brain function. Eat healthy!

Receptor molecules on the ends of neurons pass on, stop, or regulate the chemicals depending on the type of neurotransmitter. Ionotropic receptors can be excited by neurotransmitters like glutamate and aspartate and inhibited by neurotransmitters like GABA and glycine. Most neurotransmitters receptors are G-protein coupled receptors or Metabotropic receptors which are neither excitatory nor inhibitory, but instead modulate the actions of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters.

Fun Fact! Neurotransmitters signal electrical impulses that can travel at over 200 mph!


breakdown in neurotransmitters causes mental disorders

synapses are measured in nanometers

About the Author
Emma McMullen attends Billings Senior High and is currently undertaking her junior year. Emma is involved in Band, Choir, Forensics, BPA, Academic Team, Interact Club, and Senior Advocates with the goal of expanding her horizons. Emma enjoys teaching swimming lessons, spending time around children, writing, and exploring music. Emma hopes to live her life traveling and learning about the world in every way possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why are there different kinds of learners and how does this affect retention?

A: This concept has actually been recently debunked. No one is tied down to any particular learning style. Learning is all about finding the balance and combination of methods that help your synapses fire faster and faster!

Q: Why do some people learn faster than others?

A: It’s really all about practice. Some people are more able to make neural connections based purely on genetics. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone else is doomed to never learn as well. With practice and a good learning environment that allows for failure and improvement, anyone can achieve their learning goals.

Q: What environments are necessary for effective learning?

A: Important factors in a successful learning environment vary from person to person, but for the most part, people need clarity. Some of this comes from a teacher or coach, but clearly written notes and good lighting can help most people learn more efficiently.