What is Pharmacology?

Pharmacology, in the most general sense, is the study of how substances from the outside environment alter normal biochemical functions in an organism. That includes a lot of substances! Here we will be talking about neuropharmacological substances: drugs which affect the nervous system's functioning.

Explaining how drugs work on the brain is the main task of pharmacology in neuroscience. Take caffeine for example. Caffeine is an antagonist, which means it prevents another substance from making changes to a neuron. Caffeine prevents a substance called adenoside from binding to its receptor sites on neurons. If binding occurs, it signals the body that it is time to sleep.  So, if binding is prevented, it has the effect of keeping people awake. Nearly everyone has personal experience of this effect. Unfortunately,  we cannot simply look inside the brain to understand a drug,  The chemical effect of caffeine on the brain is an essential part of the story, but it is not the whole story. Pharmacology also considers how caffeine is taken, how much is taken, and how often. These questions are vital to understanding caffeine, but there are even more to ask.

 Like many drugs, caffeine is intertwined with the human experience in complex ways. Neuroanthropology adds to this story, recognizing the significance of the context and reasons why people use caffeine.