Psychoactive Drug Types & Uses

Annakay Newell, Tom Dragomir
  • Author
    Annakay Newell

    Annakay Newell has taught in the biological and environmental science fields for over ten years. She has a PhD in plant pathology from the University of Georgia, a MSc in plant pathology from the University of Arkansas and a BSc in Biology from the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff.

  • Instructor
    Tom Dragomir

    Tom achieved a Bachelor degree in the field of Radio and Television Arts

Psychoactive drugs are substances that affect the mind. Explore the different types of psychoactive drugs and as well as the side effects of these drugs. Updated: 11/29/2021

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What Are Psychoactive Drugs?

Psychoactive drugs are substances that cause changes in the normal activities of the central nervous system. It disrupts the action of neurotransmitters and the communication between neurons in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the body that carry signals between nerve cells and are responsible for emotional responses such as happiness and sadness, pain, movement, hunger, thirst, and other stimuli. Psychoactive drugs affect mental processes such as perception, consciousness, cognition or mood and emotions and can have short-term or long-lasting effects on the brain. The way in which a psychoactive drug affects an individual is based on their size, health, weight, dosage taken, and prior experience with the drug.

Most people think of psychoactive drugs as illicit or illegal, but some do not fall in this category. For example, caffeine is a commonly used stimulant and morphine is clinically used treat pain.

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  • 0:00 What are Psychoactive Drugs?
  • 0:34 Stimulants and Depressants
  • 1:17 Narcotics and Hallucinogens
  • 2:02 Tolerance and Potency
  • 3:59 Lesson Summary
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Types of Psychoactive Drugs

There are four main types of psychoactive drugs: stimulants, depressants, narcotics, and hallucinogens. These drugs are classified based on the pharmacological effect that they have on the body upon consumption. Other classifications take into consideration their origin, whether natural, synthetic, or semisynthetic, and how they are regulated. A more recent classification system also considers their chemical composition.

Stimulants and Depressants

Stimulants are drugs that increase the activity of the central nervous system and affect the blood pressure, heart rate, and alertness of its users. Specifically, they increase the levels of a chemical called catecholamine. There are a wide range of drugs that fall into this category. The reasons for using these drugs also vary widely. Some people use them to enhance performance while others use it for recreation or medical problems. For example, stimulants are commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy, and hypotension, and obesity. Commonly used stimulants include caffeine, amphetamines, cocaine, nicotine, and crystal methamphetamine. Stimulants can cause:

  • A feeling of euphoria or well-being
  • Being overly talkative
  • A reduction in appetite
  • Increased alertness

High doses of stimulants can cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, tremors, nausea, seizures, coma, and death.

Depressants are drugs that reduce stimulation and arousal by calming the nerves and relaxing the muscles. These drugs depress the central nervous system by lowering neurotransmission levels. They do this by increasing the production of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). They are among the most common psychoactive drugs used around the world and include sedatives, tranquilizers, and hypnotics. They are used to treat sleep disorders, anxiety, and muscle spasms. Commonly used depressants are alcohol, Valium, Rohypnol, Xanax, and other benzodiazepines. Depressants can cause:

  • Drowsiness or sleep
  • Relaxation
  • Decreased inhibition

Improper use of depressants can cause lack of coordination, confusion, low blood pressure and heart rate, slurred speech, dizziness, and death.

Hallucinogens and Narcotics

Hallucinogens, also known as psychedelic drugs, are those that alter an individual's perception of reality or distort how they view themselves and their surroundings. Hallucinogens work by activating 5-HT2A receptors (2ARs) in the brain that are usually triggered by serotonin, the hormone responsible for stabilizing mood. The most commonly used hallucinogens are LSD(lysergic acid diethylamide), mushrooms, and DMT (Dimethyltryptamine). Ingestion of hallucinogens can cause:

  • Hallucinations
  • Intense sensory experiences
  • Mixed senses
  • Altered perception of time
  • Increased heart rate and energy
  • Nausea

Hallucinogens can have long term effects such as mood or visual disturbances, paranoia, disorganized thinking, or a condition called hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD).

Narcotics are psychoactive drugs that have numbing or paralyzing properties and are used to treat moderate to severe pain. They act by binding to opioid receptors in the central nervous system. Narcotics have analgesic (pain relief) and narcotic (causing stupor or sleep) properties. They also can cause addiction. The most widely known narcotics are opiates. The effects of use or misuse of narcotics include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Slowed physical activity
  • Pupil constriction
  • Flushing
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Slowed breathing
  • Physical dependence
  • Death

Narcotics are highly regulated because of their addictive properties. There are many cases where individuals are prescribed narcotics after an injury and later become addicts.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are considered psychoactive drugs?

Psychoactive drugs are substances that cause changes in the normal activities of the central nervous system. It disrupts the action of neurotransmitters and the communication between neurons in the brain. Psychoactive drugs affect mental processes such as perception, consciousness, cognition or mood and emotions.

What are the 4 types of psychoactive drugs?

There are four main types of psychoactive drugs that are classified based on the pharmacological effect that they have on the body upon consumption: stimulants, depressants, narcotics, and hallucinogens. Stimulants increase the activity of the central nervous system and causes increased alertness. Depressants do the opposite and depress the central nervous system causing calm. Hallucinogens alter an individual's perception of reality and narcotics have numbing or paralyzing properties.

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