Stimulant Plants

Neuropharmacology is the study of drugs which affect the central nervous system.  These include psychotropic drugs that affect mood and behavior, anesthetics, sedatives, analgesics, anticonvulsants, narcotics, hypnotics and a variety of other substances.  While the precise mechanism of action is unknown for most of these drugs, a large number of neuropharmacological agents appear to be involved primarily with synaptic events.  The Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (DPET) contains a core group of investigators who study neuroactive compounds at the molecular, cellular and behavioral level.

Psychopharmacology is the study of the effects of drugs on behavior, combining methods of psychology and pharmacology.  Psychopharmacologists carryout their duties within a number of different settings, including academia, government, private research, industry and clinic.  The study of the effects of drugs on behavior has been productively examined in human as well as nonhuman populations, both within and outside the laboratory.  The central theme running through the research in this division is the use of behavioral principles as they interact with the effects of pharmacological agents and environmental events.

Source: Tufts University School of Medicine's Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics

Source: American Psychological Association


Plants with stimulant effects are among the earliest plants used by humankind for psychoactive effects.  Our interest in them is due to their profound effect on mental functioning, increasing alertness, the ability to sustain effort, and in some cases, the induction of euphoria.  Despite their seclusion to a particular geographic region, stimulant plants are widely used across the planet.  A sizable portion of the world’s population regularly consumes tobacco, coffee, tea, or some other form of stimulant plants on a daily basis.

The stimulant plants are organized here (see the chart below) by their predominant neuro-chemical mechanism: purinergic (coffee, tea, cocoa, mate, guarana, and kola), cholinergic (tobacco, areca, and lobelia), and monoaminergic (ephedra, coca, and khat).  It is worthwhile to note that most of these plant drugs work through neuromodulatory systems.  They mostly create stimulation not through direct neuronal excitation, but rather by a modulation of neuronal activity.  On the other hand, drugs that directly stimulate excitatory amino acids or block inhibitory amino acids more often have excitotoxic or convulsive effects (e.g., strychnine from Strychnos nux-vomica, or ibotenate from Amanita muscaria).  Rather, the stimulant plants generally act through neuromodulatory receptors linked to G-proteins and intracellular messengers.

Several synthetic stimulants have been developed for clinical use or illegal trade.  Amphetamine was synthesized in 1887, but its medical applications were not investigated until the 1920s (Rudgley 1999).  It was first marketed in 1932 as a treatment for asthma and nasal congestion.  Since then, a number of related drugs have been developed.  Methylphenidate (Ritalin) and pemoline (Cylert) have generally replaced amphetamines for treatment of attention disorders.  Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, “Ecstasy”) and several other amphetamine derivatives have been labeled “entactogens,” due to their prominent effect of creating feelings of interpersonal warmth and empathy.  They are also highly neurotoxic to serotonin neurons (White et al. 1996).  Amphetamines and related drugs have long been used to reduce appetite and weight, but dependence liability, toxicity, and the tendency for rebound weight gain after drug discontinuation have made them impractical for this purpose.  Despite the development of numerous synthetic stimulants, the use of plants or plant-derived drugs probably still accounts for the majority of human stimulant consumption.

Purinergic Stimulants

The purinergic stimulants are a small group of chemically and pharmacologically related drugs that are found in several different plants but commonly act on purine neurotransmitters such as adenosine.  Namely, the drugs are caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine, collectively referred to as the methylxanthines.  They are among the most commonly used stimulants in the world, and possibly the most commonly consumed of all drugs.  Methylxanthines are found in several plants that are well known across the world, and in others whose use is more regional.  Collectively, these plants include coffee, cocoa, guarana, mate, and kola.


Central nervous system stimulants



Active constituents







Coffea arabica


Adenosine antagonism


Camellia sinensis




Theobroma cacao




Paullinia cupana




Ilex paraguariensis




Cola nitida & acuminata












Nicotiana tobacum


Nicotinic Ach agonist


Areca cathechu

Arecoline, arecaidine, guvacoline guvacine

Muscarinic Ach agonist


Lobelia inflata


Nicotinic Ach agonist










Ephedra sinica


α, β adrenergic agonist Blocks monoamine reuptake Na+ channel antagonist


Catha edulis











Source: The Psychopharmacology of Herbal Medicine, by Marcello Spinella





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