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What is Neuropharmacology?

By Jessica Bosari
Updated May 23, 2024
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Neuropharmacology is a branch of neuroscience involving the study of drugs that alter the nervous system and its functioning, specifically within the brain. The goal of neuropharmacology in general is to understand the basic functioning of impulses and signals within the brain in order to discover ways in which drugs can be used to treat neurological disorders and drug dependence. There are two branches of neuropharmacology: behavioral and molecular.

Behavioral neuropharmacology focuses on drug dependence and the ways that addictive drugs affect the human mind. Molecular neuropharmacology involves the study of neurons, neurotransmitters, and neuron receptors with the goal of developing new drugs that will treat neurological disorders such as depression, psychosis, and schizophrenia. To understand the potential advances in medicine that neuropharmacology can bring, it is important to understand how thought impulses are transferred from neuron to neuron and how medications can alter the chemical foundations of these processes.

Neurons pass messages to one another through the use of different brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Each neuron has a receptor that accepts messages. Messages, however, can get interrupted in one of four ways when traveling between neurons.

First, the neurotransmitter can drift away so that the message is never passed on. This is called diffusion. The neurotransmitter can also undergo enzymatic degradation, or deactivation, where a specific enzyme changes the neurotransmitter so that the accepting neuron no longer recognizes the neurotransmitter and will not accept it.

The third problem that can occur comes when glial cells, which nourish neurons, remove neurotransmitters before the message can be accepted by the next neuron. Finally, reuptake can occur. In this process, the neuron transmitter is taken back into the neuron that released it.

One advance in neuropharmacology that has taken advantage of the way neurotransmitters work is the use of “blockers.” These are drugs that artificially fill a neuron receptor so that it cannot accept an undesired signal from another neuron. In this way, drugs have been developed to fight drug addiction, filling the neuron’s desire for a particular chemical without delivering the actual drug to the neurons.

This same method has been used to treat depression by preventing the reuptake of neurotransmitters like serotonin that promote feelings of well-being. By blocking the receptor in the cells that emit serotonin, the cell cannot reabsorb the chemical. This allows the neurotransmitter to go forward and transmit the signals as it would in a normal, healthy brain.

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Discussion Comments
By John57 — On Nov 26, 2011

I have a history of struggling with depression, and this seems to affect me seasonally more than anything else.

It took me a long time before I admitted that I had a problem, and even longer to be open to trying some kind of medication for it.

One reason I hesitated so much was because I had a friend who started on one of the medications and she said that she just didn't like the way she felt when she was taking it.

It did help with having the blues, but she also said she never really felt like she could really laugh. I guess the medication worked like it was supposed to as it kept her even, but she didn't have the extremes of feeling happy or sad.

I decided it would be worth at least giving it a try as I didn't feel like I had anything to lose. By taking the medication and my body feeling like it was getting the serotonin that it needed, I felt better right away.

Not only could I tell a difference, but my family noticed a difference as well, and everything just seems to go smoother than before.

By golf07 — On Nov 26, 2011

I have a nephew who is enrolled in a neuropharmacology graduate program. Many of the things he studies are way over my head, but I am thankful for people who are getting an education in this field.

Working with the brain in any capacity is something that is very complex. I have a sister who struggles with mental problems, and she has been diagnosed as schizophrenic.

It seems like she has been somewhat of a guinea pig as they have been trying to find the right medication and the correct dosage that will give her the best quality of life.

It has been quite a vicious cycle and taken several years. Some of the medications gave her bad side effects, such as affecting her kidneys and causing weight gain.

It has also been frustrating for her as it seems like many of the professionals really don't know how to treat her symptoms. She is a unique case and doesn't fit the mold of the typical person with schizophrenia, so it has been a long, frustrating road for everyone involved.

I hope that the area of clinical neuropharmacology will continue to be studied and researched, so people like her will be able to get the help they need as soon as possible.

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