Psychotropic medications are drugs that alter chemical levels in the brain, affecting mood, perception and behavior. Such drugs have been in existence for hundreds of years, both from natural substances and chemical derivatives, and have been used by many cultures for medicinal and hallucinatory purposes. While many of these drugs are dangerous and illegal, during the last 50 years new medications have been researched and developed under strict scientific control to become effective, often lifesaving, prescription medications for psychiatric disorders.
Types of Psychotropic Medications
There are many categories of psychotropic medications, each category treating different varieties of psychiatric disturbances by affecting different areas or chemical levels of the brain.
Antipsychotic medications have enabled patients with serious mental disorders to reclaim their lives. These medicines successfully treat many patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and are sometimes used with autistic patients. They keep delusions and hallucinations at bay, by blocking dopamine receptors in the brain.
There are two groups of these medications presently in use, referred to as first and second generation antipsychotics. First generation antipsychotics, like Haldol, were the first line of defense for several decades, but in recent times, second generation medications, like Clozaril, Risperdal, and Abilify, are more commonly prescribed.
Antipsychotics, although they can be lifesaving, have some serious side effects. They can affect metabolism, resulting in weight gain and increased risk of diabetes, and may also cause restlessness and muscle spasms.
Since bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, affects approximately 3 percent of the population, mood stabilizers are prescribed frequently. Mood stabilizers treat the dramatic mood swings that define the disorder. These medications are also sometimes used to treat milder mood disorders, such as cyclothymic disorder and some personality disorders.
Lithium has been used as a mood-stabilizing medication for a long time. During the past few decades, anti-seizure medications, such as Depakote and Tegretol, have also become staples for treating mood disorders. The side effects of mood-stabilizers may include suicidal thoughts, thyroid problems, and weight gain.
Anti-anxiety medications (tranquilizers) are used to treat patients with heightened levels of anxiety. Some patients may experience abnormal anxiety only under certain circumstances, such as in social situations (social anxiety disorder) or when confronted with particular objects or animals (phobias), and so may take prescribed medications only as needed.
Other patients may suffer from ongoing conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which may require a regular course of daily medication. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) may be treated with anti-anxiety medications or with antidepressants.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), including impulsivity and out-of-control behavior, respond well to medications classified as stimulants, which are believed to increase dopamine in the brain. Commonly prescribed stimulants include Adderall and Ritalin. While very effective in some cases of ADHD, these medications, too, have side effects which may be troublesome, such as decreased appetite and sleep disturbances.
At the present time, the most commonly prescribed antidepressants belong to a class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor class (SSRIs) a newer type of antidepressant working on serotonin levels in the brain. In the past, another class of medications, called monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or MAOIs, which affect dopamine and norepinephrine levels, was in common usage. MAOIs, though still sometimes used, have some intrusive side effects, including dry mouth, constipation, and food interactions. The antidepressants most frequently prescribed at present include Celexa, Cymbalta, Effexor, Paxil, Lexapro, Prozac, Zoloft and Wellbutrin.
Antidepressant medications have helped millions of people suffering from depression regain their lives. Nonetheless, such medications must be carefully monitored since they all carry FDA warnings that they may cause suicidal thinking in children, adolescents and young adults.
Psychotropic medications have become the mainstay of treatment for psychiatric disorders, both mild and severe, although they are most often used in combination with psychotherapy. While all doctors and some professionals with other credentials, such as physician assistants and nurse practitioners, can prescribe psychotropic medications, physicians who specialize in this field are known as psychopharmacologists.