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What is Psychopharmacology? How can medicine help me?

Psychopharmacology is the use of medications to treat emotional or behavioral problems including depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder. Today one in six people takes a psychotropic medication. These medicines now play a major role in the progress we’ve made in treating widespread psychiatric diagnoses.

The growth of knowledge in brain sciences and neural circuits, and brain chemistry recognized by several Nobel prizes, has contributed to the development of effective medications targeting a range of conditions. These medications work by modulating the signaling activity of neurotransmitters, which we now know are central to brain functioning.

What are neurotransmitters?

The brain has 100 billion nerve cells, called neurons. At the heart of this complex organ and processes are chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the chemical signals which transmit messages from one neuron to the next in these more than 100 trillion connections. Modern psychotropic medications work primarily by changing the way neurons release or respond to neurotransmitters, thus changing the brain signaling. Even subtle chan

For example, dopamine, which can be modulated by stimulant medications such as Adderall used to treat attention deficit disorder, is sometimes viewed a signal for motivation or energy or reward. 

Serotonin, which is a resilience enhancing, mood improving, or stress reducing neurotransmitter, is affected by numerous antidepressants. Signaling by GABA, the brain’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter, is the basis of action of Xanax, Klonopin, Ambien, and other short-acting anti-anxiety or sleep-inducing medications. 

Release of glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain, is modulated by Lamictal, a mood stabilizer used for bipolar disorder. From acetylcholine to endocannabinoids to endorphins to oxytocin, the list of neurotransmitters goes on and on.

Sometimes people say that imbalances in neurotransmitters “cause” various conditions such as anxiety, depression, distractibility, fatigue, insomnia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and many other symptoms or conditions. Although this way of talking about neurotransmitters is obviously an oversimplification, it can be a helpful shorthand, in that it can highlight the potential of psychotropic medications to treat these sorts of problems.

What are psychotropic medications?

Psychotropic medications are medicines that are used to treat psychiatric conditions. Psychotropic medications can be used to improve mood, reduce anxiety, improve mental focus, reduce inattentiveness, resolve insomnia, and treat other psychiatric problems. Modern psychotropic medications produce benefits primarily by modulating the actions of neurotransmitters. A psychopharmacologist is an experienced clinician who is expert in the use of these medicines.

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