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What are Psychoactive Drugs?

By Thomma Grindstaff
Updated May 17, 2024
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Psychoactive drugs refer to a broad category of substances that are capable of changing mood, behavior and perception. They alter the functioning of the brain by passing through what is known as the blood-brain barrier to affect the central nervous system. Psychoactive drugs can be divided into two broad types: those that are used for therapeutic purposes and those that are used for recreational purposes.

Also called psychotropic drugs, psychoactive drugs include medicines that are prescribed by medical professionals to treat ailments like insomnia, anxiety and depression. Psychoactive drugs commonly used in the treatment of insomnia and anxiety include benzodiazepines, which inhibit the central nervous system's function and cause sedation. Barbiturates, another type of psychoactive drug, are used for sedation and are sometimes employed as anesthetics. Both benzodiazepines and barbiturates are categorized as depressants, a classification that also includes alcohol.

Clinical depression is another ailment for which psychoactive drugs may be prescribed. One class of psychopharmaceutical drug often prescribed for depression is serotonin reuptake inhibitors. These include medications like sertraline. Another class of psychoactive drug used for treating depression is tricyclic antidepressants, such as amoxapine. Monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors are also prescribed for depression.

Medications used to treat psychosis fall in the category of psychoactive drugs. Many of these medicines are classed as phenothiazines and work on a patient's brain to reduce such symptoms as delusional thinking and hallucinations. These psychopharmaceutical drugs are also referred to as antipsychotics and lessen psychotic symptoms by blocking dopamine receptors in the brain.

Some psychotropic drugs are categorized as stimulants because they stimulate the central nervous system. These include amphetamines, which are sometimes prescribed to aid weight loss. Nicotine, found in tobacco, is a stimulant, as is caffeine, which is present in coffee, soft drinks and chocolate. Other stimulants include illegal substances like cocaine and methamphetamine.

Stimulants available by prescription are often recommended by medical professionals to treat various physical and mental conditions. Psychoactive stimulants aid in the treatment of narcolepsy, a disease that causes a person to feel sleepy during the day and sometimes to unexpectedly fall asleep. Other stimulants are helpful in the management of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Another category of psychoactive drugs is the opiates, which affect the brain's opiate receptors. These medications are used as painkillers and include such drugs as heroin, methadone and morphine. Hallucinogenic drugs, also known as psychedelics, make up an additional category of psychoactive drugs. Psychedelics cause hallucinations and include such substances as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and mescaline.

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Discussion Comments

By titans62 — On Feb 19, 2012

@jcraig - Every medication certainly isn't a psychoactive drug. Like was already mentioned, probably the recreational drugs are, but there are plenty of other prescription drugs like antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs that are regulated just because they are powerful, and people might abuse their use or administer them incorrectly without formal dosage instructions.

One of the things that wasn't really mentioned was natural psychoactive drugs. I think most people know about a lot of the opiate pain medications derived from poppy plants, but there are a lot of other plants that aren't used for commercial purposes that can have a lot of the same effects. The one I can think of off the top of my head is jimsonweed that Native Americans used to use as a hallucinogen.

By stl156 — On Feb 19, 2012

@jcraig - I am not a doctor, but I would probably considered alcohol to be in this group. Alcohol and the brain work together, because the ethanol somehow blocks nerve impulses in the brain to give its effects. Considering that drinking too much alcohol will make someone blackout or go into a coma, I would say it definitely would go in this group.

I would also say that any anti-depressant would have to go into the group just by definition. I would be willing to guess that there is a psychoactive drugs list somewhere online that would give a much more thorough rundown of many of the different psychoactive drugs and what their exact effects and purpose are. I'd also agree with your assumption about illegal drugs. I don't think many people would risk going to jail to get antibiotics.

By jcraig — On Feb 18, 2012

So, it sounds like pretty much any kind of illegal drug or medication could be considered a psychoactive drug. I know alcohol was mentioned as a depressant in the article, but would it also be considered a type of psychoactive drug?

A lot of people talk about the withdrawal symptoms associated with different drugs. Are they all the same for every type of psychoactive drug or can they different depending on what it is?

They weren't mentioned specifically in the article, but I would assume drugs like Xanex and some of the other anti-depressant drugs that are sold on the street are also psychoactive drugs, right? Are there any common illegal drugs that aren't psychoactive? It doesn't seem like there would really be a reason to do any of them if there wasn't some sort of mind-altering effect.

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