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The Role of Neurotransmitters in Cognitive Function and the Benefits of High-Intensity Exercise and Occupational Therapy

The brain is an intricate network of billions of neurons that communicate through chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters play a vital role in regulating various functions of the brain, including mood, cognition, and executive functioning. Some of the most common neurotransmitters involved in these processes are dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline.

Neurotransmitters and Their Functions

  • Dopamine: Often referred to as the "feel-good" neurotransmitter, dopamine plays a crucial role in reward, motivation, and pleasure. It is involved in regulating mood, attention, and movement (Volkow et al., 2009). Imbalances in dopamine levels have been associated with various neurological and psychiatric disorders, including Parkinson's disease and depression.

  • Serotonin: Serotonin is another important neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, and sleep. It is often considered the "happiness hormone" and plays a key role in maintaining emotional well-being and stability (Jacobs & Azmitia, 1992). Low levels of serotonin have been linked to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

  • Noradrenaline: Also known as norepinephrine, noradrenaline is involved in alertness, arousal, and stress response. It helps to regulate attention, focus, and energy levels (Sara, 2009). Imbalances in noradrenaline can lead to problems with concentration, motivation, and mood regulation.

High-Intensity Exercise and Neurotransmitter Release

High-intensity exercise has been shown to have a significant impact on neurotransmitter levels in the brain. Studies have demonstrated that high-intensity exercise can lead to an increase in dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline levels, thereby improving mood and cognitive function (Dinas et al., 2019).

  • Dopamine: High-intensity exercise has been found to increase dopamine release, which can enhance mood, motivation, and pleasure (Kandola et al., 2016). This can be particularly beneficial for individuals struggling with depression or low motivation.

  • Serotonin: Exercise, especially high-intensity exercise, has been shown to increase serotonin production and release. This can help improve mood, reduce anxiety, and promote feelings of well-being (Young, 2007).

  • Noradrenaline: High-intensity exercise also stimulates the release of noradrenaline, which can enhance alertness, focus, and cognitive function (McMorris et al., 2018).

Occupational Therapy and Brain Chemicals

Occupational therapy (OT) is another approach that can help regulate neurotransmitter levels and improve cognitive function. OT focuses on helping individuals develop, recover, or maintain daily living and work skills. Engaging in meaningful activities and tasks through occupational therapy can stimulate the release of neurotransmitters, thereby promoting brain health and cognitive function (Gitlin et al., 2008). This can further be challenged by upgrading tasks, such as increasing the duration, intensity, adding a cognitive piece during a motor movement, or increasing speed.

Occupational therapists often integrate cognition into sessions to work on problem-solving, planning, and organization, which can help improve executive functioning skills. These activities can stimulate the release of dopamine and noradrenaline, enhancing motivation, focus, and cognitive flexibility (Chacko et al., 2014).


Neurotransmitters play a vital role in regulating mood, cognition, and executive functioning. High-intensity exercise and occupational therapy are two effective strategies that can help naturally increase dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline levels in the brain. By incorporating these approaches into daily routines, individuals can enhance their cognitive function, improve mood, and promote overall brain health.


  • Volkow, N. D., Fowler, J. S., Wang, G. J., & Swanson, J. M. (2009). Dopamine in drug abuse and addiction: results from imaging studies and treatment implications. Molecular Psychiatry, 14(5), 428-442.

  • Jacobs, B. L., & Azmitia, E. C. (1992). Structure and function of the brain serotonin system. Physiological reviews, 72(1), 165-229.

  • Sara, S. J. (2009). The locus coeruleus and noradrenergic modulation of cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(3), 211-223.

  • Dinas, P. C., Koutedakis, Y., & Flouris, A. D. (2019). Effects of exercise and physical activity on depression. Irish journal of medical science, 184(3), 701-709.

  • Kandola, A., Ashdown-Franks, G., Hendrikse, J., Sabiston, C. M., & Stubbs, B. (2019). Physical activity and depression: Towards understanding the antidepressant mechanisms of physical activity. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 107, 525-535.

  • Young, S. N. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN, 32(6), 394-399.

  • McMorris, T., Hale, B. J., & Corbett, J. (2018). Effect of acute exercise on cognitive performance in the elderly. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 23(3), 169-180.

  • Gitlin, L. N., Winter, L., Dennis, M. P., Corcoran, M., Schinfeld, S., & Hauck, W. W. (2008). A randomized trial of a multicomponent home intervention to reduce functional difficulties in older adults. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 56(5), 809-816.

  • Chacko, A., Feirsen, N., Bedard, A. C., Marks, D., Uderman, J. Z., & Chimiklis, A. (2014). Cogmed working memory training for youth with ADHD: a closer examination of efficacy utilizing evidence-based criteria. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 43(4), 560-575.


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