The Five Psychotropic Drugs That Made History

What are psychotropic drugs? Who invented it? And which can be called the most important? We want to answer these and other interesting questions in this article.
The five psychiatric drugs that made history

The symptoms of mental illness can be traced back to biological and environmental factors, including maladaptive, i.e. permanent and unfavorable behavior patterns. Many different mental health professionals offer psychotherapeutic interventions. However, psychiatrists who have been trained to be physicians can also prescribe psychotropic drugs as part of treatment.

Experts have proven that both psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs have an effect on many psychiatric diseases. Often times, the combination of both works best for treatment.

Modern psychopharmacology emerged in the 1950s. A slew of discoveries changed treatments in psychiatry forever, and with it the lives of millions of patients.

The following five psychotropic drugs changed the therapeutic area permanently – although some are only rarely used. Suddenly it became possible in psychiatry to treat disorders that were previously considered incurable. The discovery of these psychotropic drugs can be recorded as one of the greatest successes in the history of medicine.

The five psychotropic drugs that have the greatest impact on mental health

Psychotropic drugs: The mood enhancer lithium carbonate

In 1948, John Cade discovered lithium for the treatment of bipolar disorder. He was an Australian psychiatrist who tried lithium because lithium is able to neutralize uric acid. At the time, he believed that uric acid was the cause of mania.

However, as it turned out, bipolar disorder has nothing to do with uric acid. John Cade was not deterred by this, however, and from then on lithium proved to be of great help for patients with manic conditions.

Lithium was the first modern psychotropic drug. Experts were able to prove in 1949 – before the discovery of chlorpromazine – that it was effective as an antimanic. Lithium was also the first drug to be used specifically for a specific psychiatric disorder.

More than 70 years after its invention, lithium is still the most effective drug used in psychiatry. 70% of patients with bipolar disorder respond to it. Lithium also has useful benefits in treating unipolar depression.

The discovery of lithium as an effective treatment for bipolar disorder marked the beginning of the revolution that psychotropic drugs started in psychiatry. For the first time in human history, something could be used to treat severe mental illness.

A selection of different psychotropic drugs.

The world’s first antipsychotic: chlorpromazine

The accidental discovery of lithium in 1948 was soon followed by another miraculous discovery: the world’s first antipsychotic drug.

In 1949, a French military surgeon named Henri Laborit was looking in Tunisia for a way to reduce the stress levels associated with major operations. He took a closer look at an antihistamine called chlorpromazine and discovered that this drug had profound psychological effects on patients when given to them prior to the procedure.

In 1952 Laborit convinced a psychiatrist to give the drug to a schizophrenic patient for the first time.

The use of chlorpromazine as the first neuroleptic prevailed across Europe. But in the United States, where psychoanalysis was all the rage, the advance of the drug was halted.

At that time, American psychiatrists were looking for psychosocial explanations for schizophrenia – here, for example, Gregory Bateson’s double bind theory is mentioned. Anything related to psychopharma was of little or no interest.

The pharmaceutical company that made chlorpromazine under the brand name Thorazin began wooing the respective governments of the US states instead of getting psychiatrists and medical schools interested in the drug. The manufacturing company did some persuasion that chlorpromazine could save government psychiatry programs a tidy sum of money.

Shortly thereafter, almost all of the major US psychiatric hospitals subscribed to chlorpromazine treatment. The introduction of Thorazin contributed to anti-discrimination policy there, and the number of clinically treated patients fell from around 600,000 in 1952 to 160,000 in 1977.

Chlorpromazine remains one of the most effective antipsychotic drugs, especially in seriously ill patients. It is also used beneficially in emergency situations. Like lithium, it is on the World Health Organization (WHO) list of major drugs.

A selection of psychotropic drugs.

Psychotropic drugs for depressive disorders: imipramine

The third discovery in early psychopharmacology was imipramine, the first tricyclic antidepressant.

The development of chlorpromazine, the first antipsychotic, came about through research on antihistamines. Curiously, the same is true of the synthesis of the first antidepressant: imipramine.

In the early 1950s , pharmaceutical companies looked for new drugs that could compete with thorazine in the market for treating schizophrenia.

Roland Kuhn, a senior physician employed by the Basel pharmaceutical company Geigy, who had always been more interested in depression than schizophrenia, achieved the breakthrough. He decided to give imipramine for depression behind the back of the drug company that funded his research. The results he achieved were revolutionary for the time.

Within a few weeks of starting imipramine treatment , Kuhn’s chronically depressed patients began to regain their sense of life goals, motivation, and hope. Her depressive symptoms, once considered incurable, responded very well to this new drug.

For many years, imipramine was considered the measure of all things in the treatment of major depression by professionals. Although the new SSRIs and SNRIs have largely replaced regular use of imipramine, it remains helpful in the treatment of atypical and refractory depression.

A hand holds a selection of psychotropic drugs.

Psychotropic drugs: The psychotropic drug against anxiety and insomnia: Valium

Valium was invented in 1963 by chemist Leo Sternbach on behalf of the Hoffmann-La Roche company in New Jersey, USA, and was the second benzodiazepine drug after Librium (1960).

Benzodiazepines became very popular as drugs to treat anxiety in the 1960s and 1970s. That was because the side effects weren’t as severe as those of barbiturates, the previous generation of sedatives.

An overdose of barbiturates could be fatal. The cultural stereotype of “killing yourself with sleeping pills” may also have remained.

Benzodiazepines are fatal only in exceptional cases and are very safe even if overdosed. However, they are also highly addicting. As a drug family, they belong to three categories: They are simultaneously sedating, anxiolytic (anxiolytic) and hypnotic. It all depends on the molecule, the dose and the half-life in the blood.

The Invention of SSRI Drugs: The Antidepressant Prozac

In the past 30 years, there may be no psychotropic drug better known than Prozac (fluoexetine). It was discovered by Eli Lilly and Company in 1970 and launched in the United States.

A number of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) have been discovered since Prozac was introduced. Each group of active ingredients has a slightly different chemical structure and side effect profile, but is similar in terms of their basic mechanism and effectiveness. The main reason SSRIs are so popular is that they have few side effects and a wide range of uses and effects.

The six SSRIs approved on the German market are fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, paroxetine, sertraline, citalopram and escitalopram. The discovery of SSRIs is a groundbreaking achievement for psychiatry. SSRIs are now the most commonly prescribed drugs for clinical depression, panic disorders, anxiety disorders, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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