Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the human cortex. The food supplement version of GABA is widely available online. Although many consumers claim that they experience benefits from the use of these products, it is unclear whether these supplements confer benefits beyond a placebo effect. Currently, the mechanism of action behind these products is unknown. It has long been thought that GABA is unable to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB), but the studies that have assessed this issue are often contradictory and range widely in their employed methods. Accordingly, future research needs to establish the effects of oral GABA administration on GABA levels in the human brain, for example using magnetic resonance spectroscopy. There is some evidence in favor of a calming effect of GABA food supplements, but most of this evidence was reported by researchers with a potential conflict of interest. We suggest that any veridical effects of GABA food supplements on brain and cognition might be exerted through BBB passage or, more indirectly, via an effect on the enteric nervous system. We conclude that the mechanism of action of GABA food supplements is far from clear, and that further work is needed to establish the behavioral effects of GABA.
Keywords: GABA; blood–brain barrier; cognition; enteric nervous system; food supplements.