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.