MadSci Network: Neuroscience

Re: Drugs -mechanisms of nitrogen as a neurotransmittor?

Date: Fri Jan 28 14:31:17 2000
Posted By: joshua rodefer, Research Fellow in Psychobiology & Lecturer
Area of science: Neuroscience
ID: 948830528.Ns

Hi Marie

A GREAT question!  But obviously something I can't do justice to
in a few paragraphs.

I'm not sure what level you are in school, so I don't want to give you an 
answer that is too complex.  As such, I apologize if this answer is a bit 
on the basic side.

Since you've mentioned nitrogen, I can guess that you've had some
basic chemistry and biology.  If you go on and take a course in 
Organic Chemistry, you'll learn that many of the biochemicals in living
organisms have some consistencies -- namely, that many contain carbon
and nitrogen (oxygen is also something you find a lot; and of course
hydrogen -- but it's everywhere!).

First off, you need to understand that we have some basic processes that go 
on in our body. The way our neurons (brain cells) communicate with each 
other is by one releasing a neurotransmitter that floats to the next neuron 
and attaches to a receptor.  This is how one neuron tells the next neuron 
what to do (perhaps in response to some painful stimulus, or perhaps 
attempting to move your fingers so that you can type a question on your 
computer).  The transmitter attaches to the receptor sort of like a key 
fits into a lock.  

Now, drugs are often substances that we don't normally have in our body
(like heroin, cocaine, or THC-the active ingredient in marijuana). However, 
they resemble things that we *do* have in our body (neurotransmitters).  In 
this way, they sort of 'highjack' the neuron pretending they are a regular 
transmitter.  Our bodies naturally have substances called endorphins which 
are released when we are in pain.  They are the natural painkillers that we 
can produce.  Now it just so happens that the chemical structure of 
morphine is *very* similar to the endorphins ("endogenous morphine").

Pharmacologists and neuroscientists obviously knew that morphine (the key) 
was an effective pain killer -- but we didn't know where or how it worked. 
But in the 1970s, Candace Pert and Sol Snyder isolated the first opioid 
receptors in the brain (the lock). 

If there is anything we have learned about the body it is that if we have 
something, it usually is for a specific after Pert and Snyder 
discovered the opioid receptor, the search was on to find what we had in 
our bodies that would bind to the opioid receptor -- and that is how we 
discovered the endorphins and enkephalins.

Another good source for this type of information is an introductory college 
text on biopsychology (Rosenzweig, Leiman and Breedlove's Biolgical 
Psychology is one of my favorite books).  More info on drugs can be found 
in any one of the MANY books on drug abuse and human behavior (Maisto, 
Galizio and Connors' Drug Use and Abuse is a good yet affordable text).

I hope this helps get you started.
Feel free to give me an email if you'd like more info.
Joshua S. Rodefer, Ph.D.
Harvard Medical School

Here are some web links you might like to explore:

American Psychological Association (APA) Division on Psychopharmacology

College on the Problems of Drug Dependence (CPDD)

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

Pacific Neuropsychiatric Institute

Dr. Bob's Psychopharmacology Tips

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