What is Psychopharmacology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2019
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Psychopharmacology is the study of drugs which have the ability to alter someone's state of mind. There are two main branches to the field of psychopharmacology: a branch which focuses on the development of psychiatric drugs, and a branch which examines the effects of psychotropic drugs. This field largely emerged in the 20th century, when detailed analysis of chemical compounds became possible, although people had certainly studied substances which could alter mental states before the 20th century.

On the commercial end of things, psychopharmacology allows researchers to develop new drugs for the purpose of treating mental conditions like anxiety, mania, depression, and psychosis. Psychopharmacologists work in laboratories to develop new classes of drugs, and then run these drugs through rigorous testing to determine what their effects are before releasing the drugs for general use.

One frustrating barrier is psychopharmacology is that it works with the so-called “black box” of the brain. Information enters and exits the brain, but what happens to the information inside the brain is still unclear, despite extensive research into the workings of the mind. Therefore, it is difficult to predict the effects of a drug designed to help people with psychological and psychiatric conditions, and sometimes several drugs must be tried before an effective drug can be found.


Some researchers in psychopharmacology are also interested in the effects of psychotropic drugs, looking at the ways in which these drugs alter mental states, and the ways in which some of these substances can cause permanent damage. Study of psychotropic drugs permits researchers to come up with treatment plans for people who have experienced damage as a result of consuming such drugs. It also provides some interesting information for anthropologists, who are often interested in the use of such drugs in both modern and historic culture.

The study of psychopharmacology can also pop up in historical research. For example, cases of documented mass hysteria in some cultures have been linked to the use of psychotropic drugs, which may have been intentionally or accidentally digested. Such drugs also played an important role in many rites and ceremonies in cultures all over the world, from Ancient Greece to the depths of the Amazon jungle.

In order to become a psychopharmacologist, one must generally be prepared to go to school for a very long time. Psychopharmacologists must be familiar with pharmacology, the study of drugs and their actions, as well as with psychology and psychiatry, the study of human emotions and mental states. Many are fully qualified doctors who have chosen to pursue research with their degrees, while others are PhDs with extensive post-graduate work to their names.


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