How Do Psychiatric Medications Work?
It is a common misconception that psychiatric medications treat only the symptoms of mental health conditions, not their causes. The truth is that while these medications do relieve symptoms, many of them do so by correcting imbalances in the brain, which scientists believe to be the root cause of many mental disorders. In some cases, psychiatric drugs prevent symptoms from developing by correcting this imbalance.
The human brain can be compared to the electrical wiring system in a home. Just as a home’s electric lights, heat, and appliances require a steady flow of electricity to work, our moods, thoughts, and physical and mental abilities depend on electrical impulses that pass through the nerves in our brains. These nerves are called neurons. They serve the same purpose for the brain as wires do for a home’s electrical system. However, unlike wires, neurons do not touch each other. Tiny gaps, called synapses, lie between them. Electrical impulses must leap over the synapses to move from one neuron to the next.
Yet electrical impulses do not move without a substance to conduct them. In the brain, this substance is a chemical called a neurotransmitter. It moves across the synapses, carrying the electrical impulse from neuron to neuron. Upon reaching the next neuron, the neurotransmitter fits itself into its receptor site, which serves the same purpose as an electrical outlet does for a plug. The electrical impulse then moves through the neuron and on to the next neurotransmitter and the next neuron.
If this system works properly, mental health and physical abilities remain stable. However, if there is an imbalance in the activity of the neurotransmitting chemicals, the electrical impulse becomes too weak, too strong, or erratic. Scientists believe that this is what causes mental illness. A direct causal relationship has never been proven, but research has supplied strong correlations between certain mental health conditions and significant increases or decreases in particular types of neurotransmitter activity.
Deficiencies in the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine have been associated with depression. Schizophrenia and other psychoses have been correlated with increased activity of dopamine. Anxiety disorders have been connected with imbalances in the activity of many neurotransmitters, including serotonin, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Psychiatric medications work by correcting these imbalances. Medications for conditions associated with neurotransmitter deficiencies may work by blocking the neurons’ reuptake of the neurotransmitter, leaving more of the neuron in the synapse to conduct electrical impulses. One of the best known of these is the SSRI, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, a class of antidepressants that includes Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft.
Other types of psychiatric medication prevent enzymes from destroying a neurotransmitter. Still others “replace” a neurotransmitter by mimicking the way it works, making neurons think they’re being stimulated by that particular neurotransmitter.
If a psychiatric medication works as it should, the result is relief of the symptoms. If, as scientists believe, the condition is caused by neurotransmitter imbalance, then psychiatric medication also addresses the cause. It provides more than just symptom relief.