What is Psychopharmacology?

If you have ever taken medication to control anxiety or other psychological issues, you have experienced Psychopharmacology. The science, in one form or another, has been around for most of human history. What are its roots, and what is its future? How does it work? What issues does it raise in treatment? To answer these questions, we first must understand what the science is.


A simple definition of the term is the use of drugs to treat psychological issues. Wikipedia says the word is derived from the Greek root of psychology which is breath, life or soul and pharmacology which is the use of chemical substances to treat illness. The drugs all have the property of being psychoactive, or altering the brain functions to affect mood, sensation, thinking or behavior.

History of the Science

Humans have used naturally-occurring substances to treat psychological issues for most of our history. Opium, cannabis, peyote and mescaline, among other substances, have been part of religious ceremonies. Early medical use centered on sedation to manage mental illness and behavior. In the 1950s, though, drugs obtained through chemical processes evolved. Doctors treated patients with lithium carbonate and a number of other drugs that were discovered. Since then, scientists have gained more understanding of how the drugs can be controlled.

How They Work

Drugs used in treating mental illness target neurotransmitters. These are chemicals the neurons in the brain employ to communicate with the body. The endocrine system is another focal point because communication is also affected by hormones which either facilitate or inhibit the transmission of information. They may also have their own “psychoactive” properties and may interact with the drugs. The neurotransmitters in the brain control the secretion of hormones, making the pharmacological interventions more complex.

Issues that Arise in the Therapy

An article in Psychology Today poses a relevant question. Who is responsible for our behavior? If it is simply brain chemistry, then using drugs alone to alter the behavior should suffice. If, on the other hand, there are more factors at work, such as morals, understanding, and emotions, then a combination of psychotherapy and the drugs is necessary. This is the main issue facing the use of chemicals to alter brain function.

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Doctors, even general practitioners, are increasingly prescribing drugs to control patient anxiety, depression and other problems, but this may not be an appropriate treatment in itself. For example, a patient may receive drug intervention to suppress anger. Anger, though, is sometimes needed as a motivator. It is only when it becomes uncontrollable that is a detriment. So, if it is suppressed and not addressed, will it surface later in violence? Grief is another emotion that is often controlled with antidepressants. The problem with this is that people need to process loss, called “doing grief work,” to become healthy. If their emotions are deadened too long by pharmacological means, they may not complete the processing and find themselves crippled by their grief.

It is imperative that psychopharmacologists understand how the drugs bind to proteins in the body, how long they remain in the body and how they interact with other drugs or substances. For that reason, most professionals in the area are MDs.

The use of Psychopharmacology to treat psychological disorders is increasing and that has both negative and positive aspects for future scientists to explore.