We’re going out to party and we want to dance all night long. We have to study for an exam or turn in a project in too short a time. In these and similar situations one’s physical and/or mental energy can quickly diminish until we are exhausted.

Some people, aware of this fact or simply for recreational purposes, decide to use substances to raise their level of activation and mood . These substances that maintain or increase the level of activation are called psychostimulants, being in many cases substances with an enormous addictive potential.

But the concept of “psychostimulant” does not refer to a specific, well-defined class of substance. Rather, there are different types of psychostimulants that are studied from both clinical psychology and psychiatry. Let’s see what they are and what characteristics they present.

Psychostimulants or psychoanalytics

Psychostimulants are a group of substances with psychoactive effects whose main effect is to produce an increase in brain activation . This increase usually produces an alteration and acceleration of the activity and mood, as well as of the metabolism. Also known as psychoanaleptics, the type of alteration that they provoke supposes a state of stimulation that is subjectively perceptible by the sufferer, without this having to affect the state of consciousness.

The effect of these substances is mainly due to their interaction with the mechanisms of reuptake or release of neurotransmitters, especially dopamine and noradrenaline. This is why they are highly addictive substances , as they greatly affect the brain’s reward mechanism.

The use of these substances can result from a number of factors. Sometimes they are used in medicine for the treatment of some disorders , being used as anaesthetics or for their effects on behaviour. In many cases their use is merely recreational, running the risk of abusive consumption, suffering from intoxication and generating with their withdrawal withdrawal syndromes (in which effects appear contrary to those generated by the intoxication).

Because they allow an increase in the level of physical and mental activity, they are sometimes used to improve physical performance or maintain the ability to concentrate during the study . Other substances included in this group are often consumed in the regular diet, precisely because of their stimulating effects, or they are started and continued due to social reinforcement.

Main types of psychostimulants

The group of substances known as psychostimulants is made up of several substances that have in common the increased stimulation and activity they cause. The main components of this category are cocaine, amphetamines, xanthines and nicotine .

The first two and their derivatives are considered major stimulants, generally consumed illegally and for recreational purposes despite the fact that in some cases they are used medically to treat some disorders and symptoms. The last two, xanthines and nicotine, are considered to be a minor type of psychostimulant because they cause lower (though more controllable) stimulation.

1. Cocaine

Initially developed for medicinal purposes, this psycho-stimulant obtained from the plant Erythrosylon coca is one of the best known and most dangerous excitatory substances of plant origin, as well as being among the most addictive drugs.

Cocaine acts at a neurochemical level by blocking the reuptake of monoaminergic neurotransmitters , producing a profound effect especially on dopamine transmission. Dopamine is one of the main responsible for the brain’s reward system, which means that this is a substance with a high addictive potential.

Usually consumed by nasal aspiration, its administration produces important behavioural changes surprisingly quickly. After its consumption euphoria and hyperexcitation appear, disinhibiting behaviour and causing perceptive changes and even in some cases hallucinations. It increases the subject’s vivacity, raising the heart rate and tension on a physical level. Feelings of greatness appear which, together with an expansive mood, can lead to aggression. The effects are relatively short-lived.

Its effects in combating feelings of hunger and cold, as well as inhibiting pain, are also well known. For this reason has been used as an analgesic and even employed by the army during major war conflicts, such as the First World War.

It is frequent the appearance of dependence to this type of psychostimulant, as well as intoxications and abstinence syndromes . In the latter case, the effects are the opposite of those caused by consumption: lowering of the mood, with the possibility of depressive symptoms and anhedonia, tiredness, hypersomnia, hypothermia, intense hunger and compulsive desire to consume the drug or craving.

2. Amphetamines

Popularized among soldiers during the Second World War for its ability to combat low spirits and decrease fatigue, amphetamines are a type of psychostimulant with effects similar to those of cocaine .

Initially it produces a feeling of well-being or “high” followed by behavioral and social disinhibition, hyperactivity and poor judgment.

It also has a bronchodilator effect and decreases appetite. Its mechanism of action also affects the monoamines , acting mainly on dopamine and noradrenaline by blocking their reuptake.But, in addition to blocking the reuptake, they cause more of it to be released, making the effects last longer than those of cocaine. By lasting longer, consumption distances itself further in time. Even so, there is still a high risk of dependence on this type of substance.

Despite this, at a medical level amphetamine derivatives are used to treat multiple disorders . Specifically, its effects have been used in the treatment of obesity, narcolepsy and initially it was used as a treatment for asthma, although over time other substances have been administered.

Although it may seem strange due to the high level of activity that many of those who suffer from it have another of the disorders in which an amphetamine derivative is used is ADHD, since they increase the ability to concentrate and produce an improvement in symptoms.

3. Xanthines

Although the name xanthine may not tell us anything at first, the substances grouped under this name are some of the most consumed by the majority of the population. We are talking about caffeine, theophylline or theobromine : mainly coffee, tea and chocolate, although they can also be found in soft drinks and energy drinks.

These are products consumed en masse by the majority of the population in relatively low doses, and dependency, abuse or withdrawal problems are unlikely to occur. Their main effects are an increase in activity level, decrease in fatigue and fatigue and a slight improvement in mood.

The action of xanthines is mainly due to an antagonistic action on adenosine , a action that would result in a greater presence and transmission of catecholamines (including dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin).

In the case of caffeine, cases of physiological dependence and rebound effect after stopping drinking it have been found. Excessive or too prolonged consumption can cause anxiety symptoms such as restlessness, insomnia or accelerated thinking. While excessive doses can cause death from respiratory failure, the amount needed is so high that it is unlikely.

4. Nicotine

When we think of someone who smokes we usually imagine someone who is trying to relax by smoking. However, although it may seem paradoxical, nicotine is actually an excitatory substance , producing an indirect effect on dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline. This is why it is included among the main types of psychostimulants.

Extracted from the plant Nicotiana tabacum , nicotine acts by producing an increase in neuronal activity by acting on certain acetylcholine receptors called nicotins, increasing the excitability of the neuron. In this way neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, are released more easily . Furthermore, as is well known, it is a highly addictive substance.

The fact that many people consider smoking relaxing is because the behavioral effects of this substance vary according to the dose and pattern of consumption. At low doses the excitatory effect is more visible producing disinhibition and a higher level of activity, vigilance and performance .

However, if the nicotine consumption is very high or prolonged in time the neurons are over-excited and it ends up generating a depressive effect on the nervous system, which becomes a sedative or tranquilizer.

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Fifth edition. DSM-V. Masson, Barcelona.
  • Salazar, M.; Peralta, C.; Pastor, J. (2006). Manual of Psychopharmacology. Madrid, Editorial Médica Panamericana.
  • Santos, J.L. ; García, L.I. ; Calderón, M.A. ; Sanz, L.J.; de los Ríos, P.; Izquierdo, S.; Román, P.; Hernangómez, L.; Navas, E.; Ladrón, A and Álvarez-Cienfuegos, L. (2012). Clinical Psychology. Manual CEDE de Preparación PIR, 02. CEDE. Madrid.