Slightly enhancing people’s levels of GABA, often called the ‘natural calming agent of the brain’, may improve performance in cascading and prioritizing actions.
In order to accomplish a task goal, real-life environments require us to develop different action control strategies in order to rapidly react to fast-moving visual and auditory stimuli. This is not always easy! In order to be successful in such complex scenarios, we have to prioritize and cascade our actions.
What if there was an easy way to improve these skills?
Studies have pointed to an important role of the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)-ergic system in the manipulating performance in action cascading, because it decreases the excitability of cortical neurons (as such it ‘calms’ your brain). In our study, we tested the specific role of GABA in the cascading and prioritizing of actions. We asked 30 participants to drink some orange juice. Secretly, in 15 of the participants, this orange juice contained 800 mg of synthetic GABA, and in the other 15 it contained 800 mg oral of microcrystalline cellulose (a neutral placebo). After drinking the orange juice, we asked participants to perform a stop-change paradigm. This paradigm measures how fast people are in inhibiting a response, in stopping one action and executing another one simultaneously, and in executing the second action when you get some time to stop the first one.
What we found, is that ingesting GABA, compared to placebo, increased people’s performance when stopping one action and executing another were supposed to be done simultaneously, and when these actions had to occur after the completion of the stop process. We also found that GABA decreases the time one needs to stop an action.
It is worth mentioning that our findings that increases in GABA levels lead to improved action cascading/ prioritizing seemed at odds with the results of a recent study showing that high dosage of alcohol (an unselective GABA agent) impairs action cascading. This inconsistency might be explained by speculating that GABA may relate to cognitive performance through an inverted U-shaped function: while moderate increases in GABA levels lead to an enhancement of action cascading and to more efficient inhibitory control, large increases in GABA level cause impairments, just like very low levels (possibly) do. Follow-up studies comparing the effects of different GABA dosages are needed to verify this hypothesis.
So, calming your brain a little bit, but not too much, may actually enhance your cognitive performance! Hence, next time you have to execute some actions simultaneously, or you need to prioritize, you could consider trying to you're your brain a bit, for instance by moderately (but not too much) enhancing your GABA level.
Steenbergen, L., Sellaro, R., Stock, A.-K., Beste, C. & Colzato, L.S. (2015). γ-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration improves action selection processes: a randomised controlled trial. Scientific Reports, 5, 12770; doi: 10.1038/srep12770