Psychopharmacology studies the effects of drugs, especially hallucinogens, on the central nervous system.
The effects of psychoactive agents result from constituents that belong to many classes of chemicals. All have one characteristic in common: they are biodynamic, affecting normal metabolism of the animal body.
Hallucinogens act directly on the central nervous system, but they may also affect other parts of the body. They have both physical and psychic activity. Their effects are usually short-lived, lasting only as long as the chemical remains at the point of action in the body. Pseudohallucinations - often indistinguishable to the layman from true hallucinations - may be caused by many abnormal conditions upsetting body homeostasis, or normal metabolism: fevers, fasting, lack of water for long periods, poisons, etc. Pseudohallucinations may often be of much longer duration than hallucinations.
If a plant contains an active substance, its medical potential is of interest to pharmacologists. Investigation may indicate that true hallucinogenic compounds have value for purposes far removed from their psychoactivity. An example is scopolamine, an alkaloid of the nightshade family. Taken in proper doses, it intoxicates, inducing a state between consciousness and sleep and characterized by hallucinations. Scopolamine, however, has medical uses not associated with the central nervous system: it is antispasmodic and antisecretory, mainly in the alimentary canal and urinary tracts.
Crayon drawing by a Tukanoan Indian of Amazonian Colombia, depicting one of the images experienced during an aboriginal caapi intoxication. Collected in the field by the Colombian anthropologist Dr. Gerardo Reichel-Dolmotoff, who studied the mythological significance of hallucinogens among the Indians.
Some psychiatrists believe that mental disorders are the result of an imbalance in body chemistry: "For every twisted thought, there is a twisted molecule." Some specialists formerly thought and still maintain that "model psychoses" - artificially induced states similar to some abnormal mental conditions - might be a valuable analytic tool. There are many similarities between psychotic conditions, such as schizophrenia, and the mental state induced by hallucinogens. Whether or not the use of hallucinogens to create such model psychoses will be of therapeutic value is still a question, but there is little doubt that hallucinogens may be of experimental help in understanding the functioning of the central nervous system. One specialist states that studies of "various aspects of the normal and the abnormal" may elucidate certain areas of the "hinterland of character."
It must be remembered that alteration of the function of the central nervous system by chemicals is not new; it is older than written history. In the past, especially in primitive societies, hallucinogens were employed in magico-religious and curing rituals, rarely for pleasure. In some cultures, notably those suffering acculturation, hallucinogens are sometimes used to enhance social contacts or even for explaining mental disorders. If we compare uses of hallucinogenic plants in primitive societies with the medical value claimed for them by some psychiatrists, we see that model psychoses are not a new development. Artificially induced psychoses have long been used as healing practices in primitive cultures.
Although many modern psychiatrists are critical of chemical psychoses as tools in treating mental aberrations, it is too early completely to rule out their possible medical value.
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