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Psychoactive drugs

Drugs & Medication

Psychoactive drugs

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A psychoactive drug or psychotropic substance is a chemical substance that acts primarily upon the central nervous system where it alters brain function, resulting in temporary changes in perception, mood, consciousness and behavior.

These drugs may be used recreationally to purposefully alter one's consciousness (such as coffee, alcohol or cannabis), as entheogens for spiritual purposes (such as the mescaline-containing peyote cactus or psilocybin-containing mushrooms), and also as medication (such as the use of narcotics in controlling pain, stimulants to treat narcolepsy and attention disorders, as well as anti-depressants and anti-psychotics for treating neurological and psychiatric illnesses).

Many of these substances (especially the stimulants and depressants) can be habit-forming, causing chemical dependency and may lead to substance abuse. Conversely, others (namely the psychedelics) can help to treat and even cure such addictions.

An assortment of psychoactive drugs
An assortment of psychoactive drugs


Psychoactive drug chart

The following Venn diagram attempts to organize and provide a basic overview of the most common psychoactive drugs into intersecting groups and subgroups based upon pharmacological classification and method of action.[1][2][3] Items within each subgroup are close to those of most similar action, and also follow a general placement in accordance with the legend below the diagram. Primary intersections are represented via color mixing.


Sympathomimetic Amines
Cathinone (Khat)
Betel nut
Sedative Hypnotics
Chloral hydrate
Nitrous Oxide
Salvinorin A
Ibotenic acid


Primary groups

  • Blue: Stimulants generally increase in potency to the upper left.
  • Red: Depressants generally increase in potency to the lower right.
  • Green: "Hallucinogens" are psychedelic to the left, dissociative to the right, generally less predictable down and to the right, and generally more potent towards the bottom.
  • Pink: Antipsychotics are generally more sedative/tranquilizing to the right.

Secondary groups

  • Cyan (light blue): Overlap of Stimulants (Blue) and Psychedelic hallucinogens (Green) — Primary psychedelics exhibit a stimulant effect
  • Yellow : Overlap of Depressants (Red) and Dissociative hallucinogens (Green) — Primary dissociatives exhibit a depressant effect
  • Lavender: Overlap of Stimulants (Blue) and Antipsychotics (Pink) - The modern non-sedating antidepressants.
  • Salmon: Overlap of Depressants (Red) and Antipsychotics (Pink) - The older sedating antidepressants and anxiolytics.

Tertiary groups

  • Magenta (purple): Overlap of Stimulants (Blue) and Depressants (Red) — Example: nicotine exhibits effects of both.
  • White: Overlap of Stimulants, Depressants and Hallucinogens — Example: THC exhibits effects of all three sections.
  • Sky-blue: Overlap of Stimulants, Psychedelic hallucinogens and Antipsychotics - The empathogens / entactogens.
  • Peach: Overlap of Depressants, Dissociative hallucinogens and Antipsychotics

Quaternary group

  • Light-pink: Center overlap of all four sections (Stimulants, Depressants, Hallucinogens and Antipsychotics) - Cannabis, containing both THC and CBD exhibits a mix of all sections, leaning towards the hallucinogen section due to THC being the primary constituent.

A brief history of drug use

Drug use is not a new phenomenon by any means. There is archaeological evidence of the use of psychoactive substances dating back at least 10,000 years, and historical evidence of cultural use over the past 5,000 years.[4]

While medicinal use plays a very large role, it has been suggested that the urge to alter one's consciousness is as primary as the drive to satiate thirst, hunger or sexual desire.[5]

Some may point a finger to marketing, availability or the pressures of modern life as to why humans use so many psychoactives in their daily lives, but one only has to look back at history, or even to children with their desire for spinning, swinging, sliding amongst other activities to see that the drive to alter one's state of mind is universal.[6]

This relationship is not limited to humans. A surprising number of animals consume different psychoactive plants and animals, berries and even fermented fruit, clearly becoming intoxicated. Traditional legends of sacred plants often contain references to animals that introduced humankind to their use.[7]

Biology suggests an evolutionary connection between psychoactive plants and animals, as to why these chemicals and their receptors exist within the nervous system.[8]

The 20th century has seen governments initially responding to many drugs by banning them and making their use, supply or trade a criminal offence. During the Prohibition era in America, alcohol had this approach used for 13-ish years. However, globalization has made many governments realize that the use of illicit drugs can no longer truly be eradicated. In many countries, there has been a move toward harm reduction by health services, where the use of illicit drugs is neither condoned nor promoted, but services and support are provided to ensure users have the negative effects of their illicit drug use minimised. This often goes hand-in-hand with supply reduction strategies by law enforcement agencies.

Other psychoactive drugs

  • Aphrodisiacs
    • Bremelanotide

Ways psychoactive drugs affect the brain

There are many ways in which psychoactive drugs can affect the brain. While some drugs affect neurons presynaptically, others act postsynaptically and some drugs don't even affect the synapse, working on neural axons instead. Here is a general breakdown of the ways psychoactive drugs can work.

  1. Prevent The Action Potential From Starting
    • Lidocaine, TTX (they bind to voltage-gated sodium channels, so no action potential begins even when a generator potential passes threshold)
  2. Neurotransmitter Synthesis
    • Increase - L-Dopa, tryptophan, choline (precursors)
    • Decrease - PCPA (inhibits synthesis of 5HT)
    • Causes increased sensitivity to the five senses, due to an increasing number of signals being sent to the brain.
  3. Neurotransmitter Packaging
    • Increase - MAO Inhibitors
    • Decrease - Reserpine (pokes holes in the synaptic vesicles of catecholamines)
  4. Neurotransmitter Release
    • Increase - Black Widow Spider venom (ACh)
    • Decrease - Botulinum Toxin (ACh), Tetanus (GABA)
  5. Agonists - Mimic the original neurotransmitters and activate the receptors
  6. Antagonists - Bind to the receptor sites and block activation
  7. Prevent ACh Breakdown
  8. Prevent Reuptake

- based on information taught in NSC 201, Vanderbilt University

Philosophy and morality of psychoactive drugs

For thousands of years, people have studied psychoactive drugs, both by observation and ingestion. However, humanity remains bitterly divided regarding psychoactive drugs, and their value and use has long been an issue of major philosophical and moral contention, even to the point of war (the Opium Wars being a prime example of a war being fought over psychoactives). A majority of youths and adults consume one or more psychoactive drugs. In the West, the most common by numbers of users are caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, in that order. Most people accept restrictions on some and the prohibition of others, especially the "hard" drugs, which are generally illegal in most countries.[9][10][11]

Because so many consumers want to reduce or eliminate their own use[12], many professionals, self-help groups, and businesses specialize in that field, with varying degrees of success. Many parents attempt to influence the actions and choices of their children regarding psychoactives.

Debate continues over whether each psychoactive drug being considered is or is not spiritual, sinful, therapeutic, poisonous, ethical, immoral, effective, risky, responsible, recreational, a weapon to use against enemies, a boost to the economy, etc. These attitudes can often be deeply rooted in philosophical and/or religious beliefs, making it difficult to reach consensus or agreement on the proper moral and philosophical stance regarding psychoactive drugs. A major point of contention regards the role of government, whether it should, with respect to each drug, remain neutral, make use safer, educate for abstention, educate for moderation, regulate trade, require a prescription, restrict promotion, prohibit altogether, alter penalties, change enforcement, and so on.

See also


  1. ^ William A. McKim (2002). Drugs and Behavior: An Introduction to Behavioral Pharmacology (5th Edition). Prentice Hall, 400. ISBN 0-13-048118-1.
  2. ^ Information on Drugs of Abuse. Commonly Abused Drug Chart. Retrieved on December 27th, 2005.
  3. ^ Erowid Psychoactive Vaults. Retrieved on December 27th, 2005.
  4. ^ M.D. Merlin. "Archaeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World". Economic Botany 57 (3): 295–323.
  5. ^ Siegel, Ronald K (2005). Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances. Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont. ISBN 1-59477-069-7.
  6. ^ Weil, Dr. Andrew (2004). The Natural Mind : A Revolutionary Approach to the Drug Problem (Revised edition). Houghton Mifflin, 15. ISBN 0-618-46513-8.
  7. ^ Samorini, Giorgio (2002). Animals And Psychedelics: The Natural World & The Instinct To Alter Consciousness. Park Street Press. ISBN 0-89281-986-3.
  8. ^ Albert, David Bruce, Jr. (1993). Event Horizons of the Psyche. Retrieved on February 2nd, 2006.
  9. ^ What's your poison?. Caffeine. Retrieved on July 12th, 2006.
  10. ^ Griffiths, RR (1995). Psychopharmacology: The Fourth Generation of Progress (4th edition). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2002. ISBN 0-7817-0166-X.
  11. ^ Edwards, Griffith (2005). Matters of Substance : Drugs--and Why Everyone's a User. Thomas Dunne Books, 352. ISBN 0-312-33883-X.
  12. ^ More Promising Research Findings. Brief Interventions Help Heavy Drinkers and Alcoholics. Retrieved on July 12th, 2006.
  • (Note: new ISBN for Intoxication comes in January 2007 and is 978-1-59477-069-2)

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