Psychopharmacology refers to the study of the actions of drugs on behavior. Drugs and substances with the potential to modify or completely change human behavior are best known as psychoactive. It is noteworthy that psychopharmacology has developed along with advances in neuroscience research. These two fields of scientific inquiry revealed the mechanisms of brain function—and more especially how chemical substances naturally occurring in the human brain (i.e., neurotransmitters) influence human behavior. The different types of psychoactive drugs can be broadly categorized as follows:
- Opiates and narcotics
- Neuroleptics or antipsychotics
- Anti-anxiety agents
Nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, as well as certain herbal products (e.g., ginkgo biloba and ephedrine) also exert psychoactive effects and change aspects of behavior by inducing alertness and increasing energy levels.
Function and Uses of Psychoactive Drugs
Psychoactive drugs exert their effects on brain cells (neurons) mainly by mimicking or increasing the function of neurotransmitters (agonists) or decreasing and countering the effects of neurotransmitters (antagonists). Some psychoactive drugs are used as sedatives and induce hypnotic states, whereas others are used to counter the negative effects of anxiety disorders or depression. In principal, psychoactive drugs are used for the treatment of a wide range of psychiatric symptoms and psychological disorders. In addition to their clinical uses, psychoactive substances are consumed for recreational purposes in a variety of settings and social contexts. Alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and psychedelic drugs (e.g., MDMA, or ecstasy) are commonly used, especially among young people, during social interactions, such as parties. Studies indicate that psychoactive substances may also be used to increase academic performance during exams and increase productivity in specific professions.
Psychoactive Drug Use in Sports
Psychoactive drugs are used in sports to increase athletic performance in numerous ways. Several studies report that psychoactive substances are effective in countering the effects of insomnia and sleep disturbances followed by excessive training in elite athletes. Athletes may also use psychoactive drugs to counter stress and anxiety associated with intensive training and work–life balance issues. Research also indicates that psychoactive substances are used to increase athletic performance. For instance, stimulants like ephedrine based supplements induce thermogenesis and elevate energy levels. This is assumed to help athletes increase physical stamina and burn body fat more effectively. However, evidence of the actual performance-enhancing properties of psychoactive drugs is unequivocal. The presumed ergogenic effects may come at the expense of physical and mental well-being. Specifically, serious health problems and death may result from prolonged and excessive use of psychoactive substances, such as amphetamines.
Therapeutic Uses and Doping Prevention
International sporting organizations and agencies try to regulate psychoactive drug use among athletes. The list of prohibited substances issued annually by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) includes several types of psychoactive drugs that are considered doping agents, such as narcotics, stimulants, amphetamines, and alcohol (prohibited in-competition in specific sports). Nevertheless, some prohibited psychoactive drugs may be used under the Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE) regime. This involves the authorization to use medication for the treatment of specific conditions or illnesses in athletes and necessitates strict medical supervision of the TUE process.
Psychoactive Drug Use Inside and Outside Sports
Psychoactive drugs are used in different situations, and the use of specific substances (e.g., cannabis, alcohol, nicotine) can be initiated, as previously noted, in nonsporting contexts such as parties and other socializing activities. Thus, unlike other doping substances, psychoactive drugs entail a unique socialization element, and their use may be the result of peer influences or other processes that do not necessarily relate to performance enhancement. By this token, preventing psychoactive drug use in sports should not only focus on a strict detection-and-punishment approach. Rather it could be equally important to address the broader societal influences and trends that facilitate and normalize psychoactive drug use outside sports. For instance, collegiate athletes are familiarized with excessive alcohol drinking and the use of other psychoactive substances in college campus and outside sporting events. This socialization process may facilitate the use of psychoactive drugs in the sporting context—the drugs once used for recreation can be used to facilitate performance enhancement.
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