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Despite the technology and medical understanding to persuade us otherwise, there is still a negative stigma associated with mental disorders. Many people believe mental illnesses arise from emotional rather than biological problems. However, even if we don’t know the underlying causes of some mental illnesses, the symptoms—generally caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain—are still treatable.

Antipsychotic medication is used to treat psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, panic disorder, and depression. They are classified into two different types: typical and atypical. Typical antipsychotics, also called first generation antipsychotics, were introduced in medicine around the 1950s. Atypical antipsychotics, or second generation antipsychotics, were introduced in the 1990s. These two types of medications differ slightly in how they treat mental illnesses because they target different chemicals in the brain. Atypical antipsychotics also tend to have fewer side effects than typical antipsychotics.

 Some mental illnesses are believed to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.

Image Source: Laguna Design

Both typical and atypical antipsychotics block the function of dopamine, a chemical that activates specific cells in the brain. The overactivation of these cells can cause the problematic symptoms that accompany mental illness: social withdrawal, anxiety, hallucinations, and more. Antipsychotic medications block the reception of dopamine by mimicking its shape, binding to cells in its place. By blocking these binding sites, they prevent the cells from being overactivated by dopamine.

An important difference between typical and atypical antipsychotics is that atypical antipsychotics block not only dopamine, but also another chemical called serotonin. Serotonin, like dopamine, activates our cells. Therefore, blocking serotonin has a similar effect of reducing problematic symptoms, but in a way that often treats the illness more effectively and reduces side effects.

 Illustrated representation of a dopamine molecule.

Image Source: Science Photo Library – PASIEKA

The side effects associated with the two medications vary in their severity. Typical antipsychotics can cause muscle stiffness, cramping, dry mouth, and weight gain. A group of more severe side effects called EPS (extrapyramidal symptoms) can also occur, characterized by involuntary muscle movements. Because of the severity of EPS, atypical antipsychotics are more frequently prescribed. However, atypical antipsychotics have their own side effects: dry mouth, weight gain, blurred vision, and constipation.

Though typical antipsychotics may be perceived as more dangerous because of the additional side effects, both types of antipsychotics have their merits, and rest assured, many factors are considered prior to prescription. So if you think you may be experiencing one of the aforementioned mental disorders, talk to your doctor to see if an antipsychotic is right for you.

Featured Image Source: Pills 1 by e-Magine Art

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