What is Neuropsychopharmacology?


Neuropsychopharmacology, an interdisciplinary science related to psychopharmacology (study of effects of drugs on the mind) and fundamental neuroscience, is the study of the neural mechanisms that drugs act upon to influence behaviour.

It entails research of mechanisms of neuropathology, pharmacodynamics (drug action), psychiatric illness, and states of consciousness. These studies are instigated at the detailed level involving neurotransmission/receptor activity, bio-chemical processes, and neural circuitry. Neuropsychopharmacology supersedes psychopharmacology in the areas of “how” and “why”, and additionally addresses other issues of brain function. Accordingly, the clinical aspect of the field includes psychiatric (psychoactive) as well as neurologic (non-psychoactive) pharmacology-based treatments. Developments in neuropsychopharmacology may directly impact the studies of anxiety disorders, affective disorders, psychotic disorders, degenerative disorders, eating behaviour, and sleep behaviour.

Brief History

Drugs such as opium, alcohol, and certain plants have been used for millennia by humans to ease suffering or change awareness, but until the modern scientific era knowledge of how the substances actually worked was quite limited, most pharmacological knowledge being more a series of observation than a coherent model. The first half of the 20th century saw psychology and psychiatry as largely phenomenological, in that behaviours or themes which were observed in patients could often be correlated to a limited variety of factors such as childhood experience, inherited tendencies, or injury to specific brain areas. Models of mental function and dysfunction were based on such observations. Indeed, the behavioural branch of psychology dispensed altogether with what actually happened inside the brain, regarding most mental dysfunction as what could be dubbed as “software” errors. In the same era, the nervous system was progressively being studied at the microscopic and chemical level, but there was virtually no mutual benefit with clinical fields – until several developments after World War II began to bring them together. Neuropsychopharmacology may be regarded to have begun in the earlier 1950s with the discovery of drugs such as MAO inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants, thorazine and lithium which showed some clinical specificity for mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia. Until that time, treatments that actually targeted these complex illnesses were practically non-existent. The prominent methods which could directly affect brain circuitry and neurotransmitter levels were the prefrontal lobotomy, and electroconvulsive therapy, the latter of which was conducted without muscle relaxants and both of which often caused the patient great physical and psychological injury.

The field now known as neuropsychopharmacology has resulted from the growth and extension of many previously isolated fields which have met at the core of psychiatric medicine, and engages a broad range of professionals from psychiatrists to researchers in genetics and chemistry. The use of the term has gained popularity since 1990 with the founding of several journals and institutions such as the Hungarian College of Neuropsychopharmacology. This rapidly maturing field shows some degree of flux, as research hypotheses are often restructured based on new information.


An implicit premise in neuropsychopharmacology with regard to the psychological aspects is that all states of mind, including both normal and drug-induced altered states, and diseases involving mental or cognitive dysfunction, have a neurochemical basis at the fundamental level, and certain circuit pathways in the central nervous system at a higher level. Thus the understanding of nerve cells or neurons in the brain is central to understanding the mind. It is reasoned that the mechanisms involved can be elucidated through modern clinical and research methods such as genetic manipulation in animal subjects, imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and in vitro studies using selective binding agents on live tissue cultures. These allow neural activity to be monitored and measured in response to a variety of test conditions. Other important observational tools include radiological imaging such as positron emission tomography (PET) and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). These imaging techniques are extremely sensitive and can image tiny molecular concentrations on the order of 10-10 M such as found with extrastriatal D1 receptor for dopamine.

One of the ultimate goals is to devise and develop prescriptions of treatment for a variety of neuropathological conditions and psychiatric disorders. More profoundly, though, the knowledge gained may provide insight into the very nature of human thought, mental abilities like learning and memory, and perhaps consciousness itself. A direct product of neuropsychopharmacological research is the knowledge base required to develop drugs which act on very specific receptors within a neurotransmitter system. These “hyperselective-action” drugs would allow the direct targeting of specific sites of relevant neural activity, thereby maximising the efficacy (or technically the potency) of the drug within the clinical target and minimising adverse effects. However, there are some cases when some degree of pharmacological promiscuity is tolerable and even desirable, producing more desirable results than a more selective agent would. An example of this is Vortioxetine, a drug which is not particularly selective as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, having a significant degree of serotonin modulatory activity, but which has demonstrated reduced discontinuation symptoms (and reduced likelihood of relapse) and greatly reduced incidence of sexual dysfunction, without loss in antidepressant efficacy.

The groundwork is currently being paved for the next generation of pharmacological treatments, which will improve quality of life with increasing efficiency. For example, contrary to previous thought, it is now known that the adult brain does to some extent grow new neurons – the study of which, in addition to neurotrophic factors, may hold hope for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, and types of chorea. All of the proteins involved in neurotransmission are a small fraction of the more than 100,000 proteins in the brain. Thus there are many proteins which are not even in the direct path of signal transduction, any of which may still be a target for specific therapy. At present, novel pharmacological approaches to diseases or conditions are reported at a rate of almost one per week.


So far as we know, everything we perceive, feel, think, know, and do are a result of neurons firing and resetting. When a cell in the brain fires, small chemical and electrical swings called the action potential may affect the firing of as many as a thousand other neurons in a process called neurotransmission. In this way signals are generated and carried through networks of neurons, the bulk electrical effect of which can be measured directly on the scalp by an EEG device.

By the last decade of the 20th century, the essential knowledge of all the central features of neurotransmission had been gained. These features are:

  • The synthesis and storage of neurotransmitter substances;
  • The transport of synaptic vesicles and subsequent release into the synapse;
  • Receptor activation and cascade function; and
  • Transport mechanisms (reuptake) and/or enzyme degradation.

The more recent advances involve understanding at the organic molecular level; biochemical action of the endogenous ligands, enzymes, receptor proteins, etc. The critical changes affecting cell firing occur when the signalling neurotransmitters from one neuron, acting as ligands, bind to receptors of another neuron. Many neurotransmitter systems and receptors are well known, and research continues toward the identification and characterisation of a large number of very specific subtypes of receptors. For the six more important neurotransmitters Glu, GABA, Ach, NE, DA, and 5HT (listed at neurotransmitter) there are at least 29 major subtypes of receptor. Further “sub-subtypes” exist together with variants, totalling in the hundreds for just these 6 transmitters (refer to serotonin receptor, for example). It is often found that receptor subtypes have differentiated function, which in principle opens up the possibility of refined intentional control over brain function.

It has previously been known that ultimate control over the membrane voltage or potential of a nerve cell, and thus the firing of the cell, resides with the transmembrane ion channels which control the membrane currents via the ions K+, Na+, and Ca++, and of lesser importance Mg++ and Cl. The concentration differences between the inside and outside of the cell determine the membrane voltage.

Precisely how these currents are controlled has become much clearer with the advances in receptor structure and G-protein coupled processes. Many receptors are found to be pentameric clusters of five transmembrane proteins (not necessarily the same) or receptor subunits, each a chain of many amino acids. Transmitters typically bind at the junction between two of these proteins, on the parts that protrude from the cell membrane. If the receptor is of the ionotropic type, a central pore or channel in the middle of the proteins will be mechanically moved to allow certain ions to flow through, thus altering the ion concentration difference. If the receptor is of the metabotropic type, G-proteins will cause metabolism inside the cell that may eventually change other ion channels. Researchers are better understanding precisely how these changes occur based on the protein structure shapes and chemical properties.

The scope of this activity has been stretched even further to the very blueprint of life since the clarification of the mechanism underlying gene transcription. The synthesis of cellular proteins from nuclear DNA has the same fundamental machinery for all cells; the exploration of which now has a firm basis thanks to the Human Genome Project which has enumerated the entire human DNA sequence, although many of the estimated 35,000 genes remain to be identified. The complete neurotransmission process extends to the genetic level. Gene expression determines protein structures through type II RNA polymerase. So enzymes which synthesize or breakdown neurotransmitters, receptors, and ion channels are each made from mRNA via the DNA transcription of their respective gene or genes. But neurotransmission, in addition to controlling ion channels either directly or otherwise through metabotropic processes, also actually modulates gene expression. This is most prominently achieved through modification of the transcription initiation process by a variety of transcription factors produced from receptor activity.

Aside from the important pharmacological possibilities of gene expression pathways, the correspondence of a gene with its protein allows the important analytical tool of gene knockout. Living specimens can be created using homolog recombination in which a specific gene cannot be expressed. The organism will then be deficient in the associated protein which may be a specific receptor. This method avoids chemical blockade which can produce confusing or ambiguous secondary effects so that the effects of a lack of receptor can be studied in a purer sense.


The inception of many classes of drugs is in principle straightforward: any chemical that can enhance or diminish the action of a target protein could be investigated further for such use. The trick is to find such a chemical that is receptor-specific (cf. “dirty drug”) and safe to consume. The 2005 Physicians’ Desk Reference lists twice the number of prescription drugs as the 1990 version. Many people by now are familiar with “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors“, or SSRIs which exemplify modern pharmaceuticals. These SSRI antidepressant drugs, such as Paxil and Prozac, selectively and therefore primarily inhibit the transport of serotonin which prolongs the activity in the synapse. There are numerous categories of selective drugs, and transport blockage is only one mode of action. The FDA has approved drugs which selectively act on each of the major neurotransmitters such as NE reuptake inhibitor antidepressants, DA blocker anti-psychotics, and GABA agonist tranquilisers (benzodiazepines).

New endogenous chemicals are continually identified. Specific receptors have been found for the drugs THC (cannabis) and GHB, with endogenous transmitters anandamide and GHB. Another recent major discovery occurred in 1999 when orexin, or hypocretin, was found to have a role in arousal, since the lack of orexin receptors mirrors the condition of narcolepsy. Orexin agonism may explain the antinarcoleptic action of the drug modafinil which was already being used only a year prior.

The next step, which major pharmaceutical companies are currently working hard to develop, are receptor subtype-specific drugs and other specific agents. An example is the push for better anti-anxiety agents (anxiolytics) based on GABAA(α2) agonists, CRF1 antagonists, and 5HT2c antagonists. Another is the proposal of new routes of exploration for antipsychotics such as glycine reuptake inhibitors. Although the capabilities exist for receptor-specific drugs, a shortcoming of drug therapy is the lack of ability to provide anatomical specificity. By altering receptor function in one part of the brain, abnormal activity can be induced in other parts of the brain due to the same type of receptor changes. A common example is the effect of D2 altering drugs (neuroleptics) which can help schizophrenia, but cause a variety of dyskinesias by their action on motor cortex.

Modern studies are revealing details of mechanisms of damage to the nervous system such as apoptosis (programmed cell death) and free-radical disruption. Phencyclidine has been found to cause cell death in striatopallidal cells and abnormal vacuolisation in hippocampal and other neurons. The hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), also known as post-psychedelic perception disorder, has been observed in patients as long as 26 years after LSD use. The plausible cause of HPPD is damage to the inhibitory GABA circuit in the visual pathway (GABA agonists such as midazolam can decrease some effects of LSD intoxication). The damage may be the result of an excitotoxic response of 5HT2 interneurons (Note: the vast majority of LSD users do not experience HPPD. Its manifestation may be equally dependent on individual brain chemistry as on the drug use itself). As for MDMA, aside from persistent losses of 5HT and SERT, long-lasting reduction of serotonergic axons and terminals is found from short-term use, and regrowth may be of compromised function.

Neural Circuits

It is a not-so-recent discovery that many functions of the brain are somewhat localized to associated areas like motor and speech ability. Functional associations of brain anatomy are now being complemented with clinical, behavioural, and genetic correlates of receptor action, completing the knowledge of neural signalling (refer to Human Cognome Project). The signal paths of neurons are hyperorganised beyond the cellular scale into often complex neural circuit pathways. Knowledge of these pathways is perhaps the easiest to interpret, being most recognizable from a systems analysis point of view, as may be seen in the following abstracts.

Almost all drugs with a known potential for abuse have been found to modulate activity (directly or indirectly) in the mesolimbic dopamine system, which includes and connects the ventral tegmental area in the midbrain to the hippocampus, medial prefrontal cortex, and amygdala in the forebrain; as well as the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum of the basal ganglia. In particular, the nucleus accumbens (NAc) plays an important role in integrating experiential memory from the hippocampus, emotion from the amygdala, and contextual information from the PFC to help associate particular stimuli or behaviours with feelings of pleasure and reward; continuous activation of this reward indicator system by an addictive drug can also cause previously neutral stimuli to be encoded as cues that the brain is about to receive a reward. This happens via the selective release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of euphoria and pleasure. The use of dopaminergic drugs alters the amount of dopamine released throughout the mesolimbic system, and regular or excessive use of the drug can result in a long-term downregulation of dopamine signalling, even after an individual stops ingesting the drug. This can lead the individual to engage in mild to extreme drug-seeking behaviours as the brain begins to regularly expect the increased presence of dopamine and the accompanying feelings of euphoria, but how problematic this is depends highly on the drug and the situation.

Significant progress has been made on central mechanisms of certain hallucinogenic drugs. It is at this point known with relative certainty that the primary shared effects of a broad pharmacological group of hallucinogens, sometimes called the “classical psychedelics”, can be attributed largely to agonism of serotonin receptors. The 5HT2A receptor, which seems to be the most critical receptor for psychedelic activity, and the 5HT2C receptor, which is a significant target of most psychedelics but which has no clear role in hallucinogenesis, are involved by releasing glutamate in the frontal cortex, while simultaneously in the locus coeruleus sensory information is promoted and spontaneous activity decreases. 5HT2A activity has a net pro-dopaminergic effect, whereas 5HT2C receptor agonism has an inhibitory effect on dopaminergic activity, particularly in the prefrontal cortex. One hypothesis suggests that in the frontal cortex, 5HT2A promotes late asynchronous excitatory postsynaptic potentials, a process antagonised by serotonin itself through 5HT1 receptors, which may explain why SSRIs and other serotonin-affecting drugs do not normally cause a patient to hallucinate. However, the fact that many classical psychedelics do in fact have significant affinity for 5HT1 receptors throws this claim into question. The head twitch response, a test used for assessing classical psychedelic activity in rodents, is produced by serotonin itself only in the presence of beta-Arrestins, but is triggered by classical psychedelics independent of beta-Arrestin recruitment. This may better explain the difference between the pharmacology of serotonergic neurotransmission (even if promoted by drugs such as SSRIs) and that of classical psychedelics. Newer findings, however, indicate that binding to the 5HT2A-mGlu2 heterodimer is also necessary for classical psychedelic activity. This, too, may be relevant to the pharmacological differences between the two. While early in the history of psychedelic drug research it was assumed that these hallucinations were comparable to those produced by psychosis and thus that classical psychedelics could serve as a model of psychosis, it is important to note that modern neuropsychopharmacological knowledge of psychosis has progressed significantly since then, and we now know that psychosis shows little similarity to the effects of classical psychedelics in mechanism, reported experience or most other respects aside from the surface similarity of “hallucination”.

Circadian rhythm, or sleep/wake cycling, is centred in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) within the hypothalamus, and is marked by melatonin levels 2000-4,000% higher during sleep than in the day. A circuit is known to start with melanopsin cells in the eye which stimulate the SCN through glutamate neurons of the hypothalamic tract. GABAergic neurons from the SCN inhibit the paraventricular nucleus, which signals the superior cervical ganglion (SCG) through sympathetic fibres. The output of the SCG, stimulates NE receptors (β) in the pineal gland which produces N-acetyltransferase, causing production of melatonin from serotonin. Inhibitory melatonin receptors in the SCN then provide a positive feedback pathway. Therefore, light inhibits the production of melatonin which “entrains” the 24-hour cycle of SCN activity. The SCN also receives signals from other parts of the brain, and its (approximately) 24-hour cycle does not only depend on light patterns. In fact, sectioned tissue from the SCN will exhibit daily cycle in vitro for many days. Additionally, (not shown in diagram), the basal nucleus provides GABA-ergic inhibitory input to the pre-optic anterior hypothalamus (PAH). When adenosine builds up from the metabolism of ATP throughout the day, it binds to adenosine receptors, inhibiting the basal nucleus. The PAH is then activated, generating slow-wave sleep activity. Caffeine is known to block adenosine receptors, thereby inhibiting sleep among other things.


Research in the field of neuropsychopharmacology encompasses a wide range of objectives. These might include the study of a new chemical compound for potentially beneficial cognitive or behavioural effects, or the study of an old chemical compound in order to better understand its mechanism of action at the cell and neural circuit levels. For example, the addictive stimulant drug cocaine has long been known to act upon the reward system in the brain, increasing dopamine and norepinephrine levels and inducing euphoria for a short time. More recently published studies however have gone deeper than the circuit level and found that a particular G-protein coupled receptor complex called A2AR-D2R-Sigma1R is formed in the NAc following cocaine usage; this complex reduces D2R signalling in the mesolimbic pathway and may be a contributing factor to cocaine addiction. Other cutting-edge studies have focused on genetics to identify specific biomarkers that may predict an individual’s specific reactions or degree of response to a drug or their tendency to develop addictions in the future. These findings are important because they provide detailed insight into the neural circuitry involved in drug use and help refine old as well as develop new treatment methods for disorders or addictions. Different treatment-related studies are investigating the potential role of peptide nucleic acids in treating Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia while still others are attempting to establish previously unknown neural correlates underlying certain phenomena.

Research in neuropsychopharmacology comes from a wide range of activities in neuroscience and clinical research. This has motivated organizations such as the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP), the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP), and the Collegium Internationale Neuro-psychopharmacologicum (CINP) to be established as a measure of focus. The ECNP publishes European Neuropsychopharmacology, and as part of the Reed Elsevier Group, the ACNP publishes the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, and the CINP publishes the journal International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology with Cambridge University Press. In 2002, a recent comprehensive collected work of the ACNP, “Neuropsychopharmacology: The Fifth Generation of Progress” was compiled. It is one measure of the state of knowledge in 2002, and might be said to represent a landmark in the century-long goal to establish the basic neurobiological principles which govern the actions of the brain.

Many other journals exist which contain relevant information such as Neuroscience. Some of them are listed at Brown University Library.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuropsychopharmacology >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What is a Pharmaceutical Formulation?


Pharmaceutical formulation, in pharmaceutics, is the process in which different chemical substances, including the active drug, are combined to produce a final medicinal product.

The word formulation is often used in a way that includes dosage form.

Stages and Timeline

Formulation studies involve developing a preparation of the drug which is both stable and acceptable to the patient. For orally administered drugs, this usually involves incorporating the drug into a tablet or a capsule. It is important to make the distinction that a tablet contains a variety of other potentially inert substances apart from the drug itself, and studies have to be carried out to ensure that the encapsulated drug is compatible with these other substances in a way that does not cause harm, whether direct or indirect.

Preformulation involves the characterisation of a drug’s physical, chemical, and mechanical properties in order to choose what other ingredients (excipients) should be used in the preparation. In dealing with protein pre-formulation, the important aspect is to understand the solution behaviour of a given protein under a variety of stress conditions such as freeze/thaw, temperature, shear stress among others to identify mechanisms of degradation and therefore its mitigation.

Formulation studies then consider such factors as particle size, polymorphism, pH, and solubility, as all of these can influence bioavailability and hence the activity of a drug. The drug must be combined with inactive ingredients by a method that ensures that the quantity of drug present is consistent in each dosage unit e.g. each tablet. The dosage should have a uniform appearance, with an acceptable taste, tablet hardness, and capsule disintegration.

It is unlikely that formulation studies will be complete by the time clinical trials commence. This means that simple preparations are developed initially for use in phase I clinical trials. These typically consist of hand-filled capsules containing a small amount of the drug and a diluent. Proof of the long-term stability of these formulations is not required, as they will be used (tested) in a matter of days. Consideration has to be given to what is known as “drug loading” – the ratio of the active drug to the total contents of the dose. A low drug load may cause homogeneity problems. A high drug load may pose flow problems or require large capsules if the compound has a low bulk density.

By the time phase III clinical trials are reached, the formulation of the drug should have been developed to be close to the preparation that will ultimately be used in the market. A knowledge of stability is essential by this stage, and conditions must have been developed to ensure that the drug is stable in the preparation. If the drug proves unstable, it will invalidate the results from clinical trials since it would be impossible to know what the administered dose actually was. Stability studies are carried out to test whether temperature, humidity, oxidation, or photolysis (ultraviolet light or visible light) have any effect, and the preparation is analysed to see if any degradation products have been formed.

Container Closure

Formulated drugs are stored in container closure systems for extended periods of time. These include blisters, bottles, vials, ampules, syringes, and cartridges. The containers can be made from a variety of materials including glass, plastic, and metal. The drug may be stored as a solid, liquid, or gas.

It’s important to check whether there are any undesired interactions between the preparation and the container. For instance, if a plastic container is used, tests are carried out to see whether any of the ingredients become adsorbed on to the plastic, and whether any plasticiser, lubricants, pigments, or stabilisers leach out of the plastic into the preparation. Even the adhesives for the container label need to be tested, to ensure they do not leach through the plastic container into the preparation.

Formulation Types

The drug form varies by the route of administration, such as capsules, tablets, and pills etc.

Enteral Formulations

Oral drugs are normally taken as tablets or capsules.

The drug (active substance) itself needs to be soluble in aqueous solution at a controlled rate. Such factors as particle size and crystal form can significantly affect dissolution. Fast dissolution is not always ideal. For example, slow dissolution rates can prolong the duration of action or avoid initial high plasma levels. Treatment of active ingredient by special ways such as spherical crystallisation can have some advantages for drug formulation.


A tablet is usually a compressed preparation that contains:

  • 5-10% of the drug (active substance);
  • 80% of fillers, disintegrants, lubricants, glidants, and binders; and
  • 10% of compounds which ensure easy disintegration, disaggregation, and dissolution of the tablet in the stomach or the intestine.

The dissolution time can be modified for a rapid effect or for sustained release.

Special coatings can make the tablet resistant to the stomach acids such that it only disintegrates in the duodenum, jejunum and colon as a result of enzyme action or alkaline pH.

Pills can be coated with sugar, varnish, or wax to disguise the taste.


A capsule is a gelatinous envelope enclosing the active substance. Capsules can be designed to remain intact for some hours after ingestion in order to delay absorption. They may also contain a mixture of slow and fast release particles to produce rapid and sustained absorption in the same dose.

Sustained Release

There are a number of methods by which tablets and capsules can be modified in order to allow for sustained release of the active compound as it moves through the digestive tract. One of the most common methods is to embed the active ingredient in an insoluble porous matrix, such that the dissolving drug must make its way out of the matrix before it can be absorbed. In other sustained release formulations the matrix swells to form a gel through which the drug exits.

Another method by which sustained release is achieved is through an osmotic controlled-release oral delivery system, where the active compound is encased in a water-permeable membrane with a laser drilled hole at one end. As water passes through the membrane the drug is pushed out through the hole and into the digestive tract where it can be absorbed.

Parenteral Formulations

These are also called injectable formulations and are used with intravenous, subcutaneous, intramuscular, and intra-articular administration. The drug is stored in liquid or if unstable, lyophilised form.

Many parenteral formulations are unstable at higher temperatures and require storage at refrigerated or sometimes frozen conditions. The logistics process of delivering these drugs to the patient is called the cold chain. The cold chain can interfere with delivery of drugs, especially vaccines, to communities where electricity is unpredictable or non-existent. NGOs like the Gates Foundation are actively working to find solutions. These may include lyophilised formulations which are easier to stabilise at room temperature.

Most protein formulations are parenteral due to the fragile nature of the molecule which would be destroyed by enteric administration. Proteins have tertiary and quaternary structures that can be degraded or cause aggregation at room temperature. This can impact the safety and efficacy of the medicine.


Liquid drugs are stored in vials, IV bags, ampoules, cartridges, and prefilled syringes.

As with solid formulations, liquid formulations combine the drug product with a variety of compounds to ensure a stable active medication following storage. These include solubilisers, stabilisers, buffers, tonicity modifiers, bulking agents, viscosity enhancers/reducers, surfactants, chelating agents, and adjuvants.

If concentrated by evaporation, the drug may be diluted before administration. For IV administration, the drug may be transferred from a vial to an IV bag and mixed with other materials.


Lyophilised drugs are stored in vials, cartridges, dual chamber syringes, and prefilled mixing systems.

Lyophilisation, or freeze drying, is a process that removes water from a liquid drug creating a solid powder, or cake. The lyophilised product is stable for extended periods of time and could allow storage at higher temperatures. In protein formulations, stabilisers are added to replace the water and preserve the structure of the molecule.

Before administration, a lyophilised drug is reconstituted as a liquid before being administered. This is done by combining a liquid diluent with the freeze-dried powder, mixing, then injecting. Reconstitution usually requires a reconstitution and delivery system to ensure that the drug is correctly mixed and administered.

Topical Formulations


Options for topical formulation include:

  • Cream: Emulsion of oil and water in approximately equal proportions. Penetrates stratum corneum outer layers of skin well.
  • Ointment: Combines oil (80%) and water (20%). Effective barrier against moisture loss.
  • Gel: Liquefies upon contact with the skin.
  • Paste: Combines three agents – oil, water, and powder; an ointment in which a powder is suspended.
  • Powder: A finely subdivided solid substance.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharmaceutical_formulation >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What is Liberation (in Pharmacology)?


Liberation is the first step in the process by which medication enters the body and liberates the active ingredient that has been administered. The pharmaceutical drug must separate from the vehicle or the excipient that it was mixed with during manufacture. Some authors split the process of liberation into three steps: disintegration, disaggregation and dissolution. A limiting factor in the adsorption of pharmaceutical drugs is the degree to which they are ionised, as cell membranes are relatively impermeable to ionised molecules.

The characteristics of a medication’s excipient play a fundamental role in creating a suitable environment for the correct absorption of a drug. This can mean that the same dose of a drug in different forms can have different bioequivalence, as they yield different plasma concentrations and therefore have different therapeutic effects. Dosage forms with modified release (such as delayed or extended release) allow this difference to be usefully applied.


In a typical situation, a pill taken orally will pass through the oesophagus and into the stomach. As the stomach has an aqueous environment, it is the first place where the pill can dissolve. The rate of dissolution is a key element in controlling the duration of a drug’s effect. For this reason, different forms of the same medication can have the same active ingredients but different dissolution rates. If a drug is administered in a form that is not rapidly dissolved, the drug will be absorbed more gradually over time and its action will have a longer duration. A consequence of this is that patients will comply more closely to a prescribed course of treatment, if the medication does not have to be taken as frequently. In addition, a slow release system will maintain drug concentrations within a therapeutically acceptable range for longer than quicker releasing delivery systems as these result in more pronounced peaks in plasma concentration.

The dissolution rate is described by the Noyes-Whitney equation:


  • {\frac  {dW}{dt}} is the dissolution rate.
  • A is the solid’s surface area.
  • C is the concentration of the solid in the bulk dissolution medium.
  • C8 is the concentration of the solid in the diffusion layer surrounding the solid.
  • D is the diffusion coefficient.
  • L is the thickness of the diffusion layer.

As the solution is already in a dissolved state, it does not have to go through a dissolution stage before absorption begins.


Cell membranes present a greater barrier to the movement of ionised molecules than non-ionised liposoluble substances. This is particularly important for substances that are weakly amphoteric. The stomach’s acidic pH and the subsequent alkalization in the intestine modifies the degree of ionisation of acids and weak bases depending on a substance’s pKa. The pKa is the pH at which a substance is present at an equilibrium between ionised and non-ionised molecules. The Henderson-Hasselbalch equation is used to calculate pKa.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberation_(pharmacology) >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What is a Dosage Form?


Dosage forms (also called unit doses) are pharmaceutical drug products in the form in which they are marketed for use, with a specific mixture of active ingredients and inactive components (excipients), in a particular configuration (such as a capsule shell, for example), and apportioned into a particular dose. For example, two products may both be amoxicillin, but one is in 500 mg capsules and another is in 250 mg chewable tablets.

The term unit dose can also sometimes encompass non-reusable packaging as well (especially when each drug product is individually packaged), although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) distinguishes that by unit-dose “packaging” or “dispensing”. Depending on the context, multi(ple) unit dose can refer to distinct drug products packaged together, or to a single drug product containing multiple drugs and/or doses. The term dosage form can also sometimes refer only to the pharmaceutical formulation of a drug product’s constituent drug substance(s) and any blends involved, without considering matters beyond that (like how it is ultimately configured as a consumable product such as a capsule, patch, etc.). Because of the somewhat vague boundaries and unclear overlap of these terms and certain variants and qualifiers within the pharmaceutical industry, caution is often advisable when conversing with someone who may be unfamiliar with another person’s use of the term.

Depending on the method/route of administration, dosage forms come in several types. These include many kinds of liquid, solid, and semisolid dosage forms. Common dosage forms include pill, tablet, or capsule, drink or syrup, among many others. In naturopathy, dosages can take the form of decoctions and herbal teas, as well as the more conventional methods previously mentioned. A liquid dosage form is the liquid form of a dose of a chemical compound used as a drug or medication intended for administration or consumption.

The route of administration (ROA) for drug delivery is dependent on the dosage form of the substance in question. Various dosage forms may exist for a single particular drug, since some medical conditions such as being unconscious can restrict ROA. For example, persistent nausea, especially with vomiting, may make it difficult to use an oral dosage form, and in such a case, it may be necessary to use an alternative route such as inhalational, buccal, sublingual, nasal, suppository or parenteral instead. Additionally, a specific dosage form may be a requirement for certain kinds of drugs, as there may be issues with various factors like chemical stability or pharmacokinetics. As an example, insulin cannot be given orally because upon being administered in this manner, it is extensively metabolized in the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) before reaching the blood stream, and is thereby incapable of sufficiently reaching its therapeutic target destinations. The oral and intravenous doses of a drug such as paracetamol will differ for the same reason.


  • Pills, i.e. tablets or capsules.
  • Liquids such as syrups, solutions, elixers, emulsions, and tinctures.
  • Liquids such as decoctions and herbal teas.
  • Orally disintegrating tablets.
  • Lozenges or candy (electuaries).
  • Thin films (e.g. Listerine Pocketpaks, nitroglycerin) to be placed on top of or underneath the tongue as well as against the cheek.
  • Powders or effervescent powder or tablets, often instructed to be mixed into a food item.
  • Plants or seeds prepared in various ways such as a cannabis edible.
  • Pastes such as high fluoride toothpastes.
  • Gases such as oxygen (can also be delivered through the nose).


  • Eye drops.
  • Lotions.
  • Ointments.
  • Emulsions.


  • Aerosolised medication.
  • Dry-powder Inhalers or metered dose inhalers.
  • Nebuliser-administered medication.
  • Smoking.
  • Vaporiser-administered medication.

Unintended Ingredients

Talc is an excipient often used in pharmaceutical tablets that may end up being crushed to a powder against medical advice or for recreational use. Also, illicit drugs that occur as white powder in their pure form are often cut with cheap talc. Natural talc is cheap but contains asbestos while asbestos-free talc is more expensive. Inhaled talc that has asbestos is generally accepted as being able to cause lung cancer if it is inhaled. The evidence about asbestos-free talc is less clear, according to the American Cancer Society.


  • Parenteral.
  • Intradermally-administered (ID).
  • Subcutaneously-administered (SC).
  • Intramuscularly-administered (IM).
  • Intraosseous administration (IO).
  • Intraperitoneally-administered (IP).
  • intravenously-administered (IV).
  • Intracavernously-administered (ICI).

These are usually solutions and suspensions.

Unintended Ingredients


Eye drops (normal saline in disposable packages) are distributed to syringe users by needle exchange programs.


The injection of talc from crushed pills has been associated with pulmonary talcosis in intravenous drug users.


  • Creams, liniments, balms (such as lip balm or antiperspirants and deodorants), lotions, or ointments, etc.
  • Gels and hydrogels.
  • Ear drops.
  • Transdermal and dermal patches to be applied to the skin.
  • Powders.

Unintended Use

  • It is not safe to calculate divided doses by cutting and weighing medical skin patches, because there’s no guarantee that the substance is evenly distributed on the patch surface. For example, fentanyl transdermal patches are designed to slowly release the substance over 3 days. It is well known that cut fentanyl transdermal consumed orally have cause overdoses and deaths.
  • Single blotting papers for illicit drugs injected from solvents in syringes may also cause uneven distribution across the surface.


  • Intravaginal administration:
    • Vaginal rings.
    • Capsules and tablets.
    • Suppositories.
  • Rectal administration (enteral):
    • Suppositories.
    • Suspensions and solutions in the form of enemas.
    • Gels.
  • Urethral.
  • Nasal sprays.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dosage_form >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What is a Medical Prescription?


A prescription, often abbreviated ℞ or Rx, is a formal communication from a physician or other registered health-care professional to a pharmacist, authorising them to dispense a specific prescription drug for a specific patient.

Historically, it was a physician’s instruction to an apothecary listing the materials to be compounded into a treatment – the symbol ℞ (a capital letter R, crossed to indicate abbreviation) comes from the first word of a medieval prescription, Latin: Recipere (“Take thou”), that gave the list of the materials to be compounded.

Brief History

The idea of prescriptions dates back to the beginning of history. So long as there were medications and a writing system to capture directions for preparation and usage, there were prescriptions.

Modern prescriptions are actually extemporaneous prescriptions (from the Latin ex tempore, “at/from the time”), meaning that the prescription is written on the spot for a specific patient with a specific ailment. This is distinguished from a non-extemporaneous prescription that is a generic recipe for a general ailment. Modern prescriptions evolved with the separation of the role of the pharmacists from that of the physician. Today the term extemporaneous prescriptions is reserved for compound prescriptions that requires the pharmacist to mix or compound the medication in the pharmacy for the specific needs of the patient.

Predating modern legal definitions of a prescription, a prescription traditionally is composed of four parts: a superscription, inscription, subscription, and signature.

The superscription section contains the date of the prescription and patient information (name, address, age, etc.). The symbol “℞” separates the superscription from the inscriptions sections. In this arrangement of the prescription, the “℞” is a symbol for recipe or literally the imperative “take!” This is an exhortation to the pharmacist by the medical practitioner, “I want the patient to have the following medication” – in other words, “take the following components and compound this medication for the patient.”

The inscription section defines what is the medication. The inscription section is further composed of one or more of:

  • A basis or chief ingredient intended to cure (curare).
  • An adjuvant to assist its action and make it cure quickly (cito).
  • A corrective to prevent or lessen any undesirable effect (tuto).
  • A vehicle or excipient to make it suitable for administration and pleasant to the patient (jucunde).

The subscription section contains dispensing directions to the pharmacist. This may be compounding instructions or quantities.

The signature section contains directions to the patient and is often abbreviated “Sig.” or “Signa.” It also obviously contains the signature of the prescribing medical practitioner though the word signature has two distinct meanings here and the abbreviations are sometimes used to avoid confusion.

Thus sample prescriptions in modern textbooks are often presented as:

  • Rx: medication.
  • Disp.: dispensing instructions.
  • Sig.: patient instructions.

Format and Definition

For a communication to be accepted as a legal medical prescription, it needs to be filed by a qualified dentist, advanced practice nurse, physician or veterinarian, for whom the medication prescribed is within their scope of practice to prescribe. This is regardless of whether the prescription includes prescription drugs, controlled substances or over-the-counter treatments.

Prescriptions may be entered into an electronic medical record system and transmitted electronically to a pharmacy. Alternatively, a prescription may be handwritten on pre-printed prescription forms that have been assembled into pads, or printed onto similar forms using a computer printer or even on plain paper according to the circumstance. In some cases, a prescription may be transmitted from the physician to the pharmacist orally by telephone. The content of a prescription includes the name and address of the prescribing provider and any other legal requirement such as a registration number (e.g. DEA Number in the United States). Unique for each prescription is the name of the patient. In the United Kingdom and Ireland the patient’s name and address must also be recorded. Each prescription is dated and some jurisdictions may place a time limit on the prescription. In the past, prescriptions contained instructions for the pharmacist to use for compounding the pharmaceutical product but most prescriptions now specify pharmaceutical products that were manufactured and require little or no preparation by the pharmacist. Prescriptions also contain directions for the patient to follow when taking the drug. These directions are printed on the label of the pharmaceutical product.

The word “prescription”, from “pre-” (“before”) and “script” (“writing, written”), refers to the fact that the prescription is an order that must be written down before a drug can be dispensed. Those within the industry will often call prescriptions simply “scripts”.


Every prescription contains who prescribed the prescription, who the prescription is valid for, and what is prescribed. Some jurisdictions, drug types or patient groups require additional information as explained below.

Drug Equivalence and Non-Substitution

Many brand name drugs have cheaper generic drug substitutes that are therapeutically and biochemically equivalent. Prescriptions will also contain instructions on whether the prescriber will allow the pharmacist to substitute a generic version of the drug. This instruction is communicated in a number of ways. In some jurisdictions, the pre-printed prescription contains two signature lines: one line has “dispense as written” printed underneath; the other line has “substitution permitted” underneath. Some have a pre-printed box “dispense as written” for the prescriber to check off (but this is easily checked off by anyone with access to the prescription). In other jurisdictions, the protocol is for the prescriber to handwrite one of the following phrases: “dispense as written”, “DAW”, “brand necessary”, “do not substitute”, “no substitution”, “medically necessary”, “do not interchange”. In Britain’s National Health Service, doctors are reminded that money spent on branded rather than generic drugs is consequently not available for more deserving cases.

Prescriptions for Children

In some jurisdictions, it may be a legal requirement to include the age of child on the prescription. For paediatric prescriptions some advise the inclusion of the age of the child if the patient is less than twelve and the age and months if less than five. In general, including the age on the prescription is helpful, and adding the weight of the child is also helpful.

Label and Instructions

Prescriptions in the USA often have a “label” box. When checked, the pharmacist is instructed to label the medication and provide information about the prescription itself is given in addition to instructions on taking the medication. Otherwise, the patient is simply given the instructions. Some prescribers further inform the patient and pharmacist by providing the indication for the medication; i.e. what is being treated. This assists the pharmacist in checking for errors as many common medications can be used for multiple medical conditions. Some prescriptions will specify whether and how many “repeats” or “refills” are allowed; that is whether the patient may obtain more of the same medication without getting a new prescription from the medical practitioner. Regulations may restrict some types of drugs from being refilled.

Writing Prescriptions

Legal Capacity to Write Prescriptions

National or local (i.e. US state or Canadian provincial) legislation governs who can write a prescription. In the United States, physicians (either M.D., D.O. or D.P.M.) have the broadest prescriptive authority. All 50 US states and the District of Columbia allow licensed certified Physician Assistants (PAs) prescription authority (with some states, limitations exist to controlled substances). All 50 US states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam allow registered certified nurse practitioners and other advanced practice registered nurses (such as certified nurse-midwives) prescription power (with some states including limitations to controlled substances). Many other healthcare professions also have prescriptive authority related to their area of practice. Veterinarians and dentists have prescribing power in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. Clinical pharmacists are allowed to prescribe in some US states through the use of a drug formulary or collaboration agreements. Florida pharmacists can write prescriptions for a limited set of drugs. In all US states, optometrists prescribe medications to treat certain eye diseases, and also issue spectacle and contact lens prescriptions for corrective eyewear. Several US states have passed RxP legislation, allowing clinical psychologists who are registered as medical psychologists and have also undergone specialised training in script-writing, to prescribe drugs to treat emotional and mental disorders.

In August 2013, legislative changes in the UK allowed physiotherapists and podiatrists to have independent prescribing rights for licensed medicines that are used to treat conditions within their own area of expertise and competence. In 2018 this was extended to paramedics.

Standing Orders

Some jurisdictions allow certain physicians (sometimes a government official like the state Secretary of Health, sometimes physicians in local clinics or pharmacies) to write “standing orders” that act like a prescription for everyone in the general public. These orders also provide a standard procedure for determining if administration is necessary and details of how it is to be performed safely. These are typically used to authorise certain people to perform preventive, low-risk, or emergency care that would be otherwise logistically cumbersome to authorise for individual patients, including vaccinations, prevention of cavities, birth control, treatment of infectious diseases, and reversal of drug overdoses.

Legibility of Handwritten Prescriptions

Doctors’ handwriting is a reference to the stereotypically illegible handwriting of some medical practitioners, which sometimes causes errors in dispensing. In the US, illegible handwriting has been indirectly responsible for at least 7,000 deaths annually.

There are several theories about the causes of this phenomenon. Some sources say the extreme amount of writing doctors employ during training and at work leads to bad handwriting, whereas others claim that doctors neglect proper handwriting due to medical documents being intended to be read solely by medical professionals, not patients. Others simply classify the handwriting of doctors as a handwriting style. The issue may also have a historical origin, as physicians from Europe-influenced schools have historically used Latin words and abbreviations to convey prescriptions; many of the abbreviations are still widely used in the modern day and could be a source of confusion.

Some jurisdictions have legislatively required prescriptions to be legible – Florida, US specifies “legibly printed or typed” – and the Institute for Safe Medication Practices advocated the elimination of handwritten prescriptions altogether. There have been numerous devices designed to electronically read the handwriting of doctors, including electronic character recognition, keyword spotters, and “postprocessing approaches,” though the gradual shift to electronic health records and electronic prescriptions may alleviate the need for handwritten prescriptions altogether. In Britain’s NHS, remaining paper prescriptions are almost invariably computer printed and electronic (rather than paper) communication between surgery and pharmacy is increasingly the norm.

Conventions for Avoiding Ambiguity

Over the years, prescribers have developed many conventions for prescription-writing, with the goal of avoiding ambiguities or misinterpretation. These include:

  • Careful use of decimal points to avoid ambiguity:
    • Avoiding unnecessary decimal points and trailing zeros, e.g. 5 mL rather than 5.0 mL, 0.5 rather than .50 or 0.50, to avoid possible misinterpretation as 50.
    • Always using leading zeros on decimal numbers less than 1: e.g. 0.5 rather than .5 to avoid misinterpretation as 5.
  • Directions written out in full in English (although some common Latin abbreviations are listed below).
  • Quantities given directly or implied by the frequency and duration of the directions.
  • Where the directions are “as needed”, the quantity should always be specified.
  • Where possible, usage directions should specify times (7 am, 3 pm, 11 pm) rather than simply frequency (three times a day) and especially relationship to meals for orally consumed medication.
  • The use of permanent ink.
  • Avoiding units such as “teaspoons” or “tablespoons”.
  • Writing out numbers as words and numerals (“dispense #30 (thirty)”) as in a bank draft or cheque.
  • The use of the apothecaries’ system or avoirdupois units and symbols of measure – pints (O), ounces (℥), drams (ℨ), scruples (℈), grains (gr), and minims (♏︎) – is discouraged given the potential for confusion. For example, the abbreviation for a grain (“gr”) can be confused with the gram, abbreviated g, and the symbol for minims (♏︎), which looks almost identical to an ‘m’, can be confused with micrograms or metres. Also, the symbols for ounce (℥) and dram (ℨ) can easily be confused with the numeral ‘3’, and the symbol for pint (O) can be easily read as a ‘0’. Given the potential for errors, metric equivalents should always be used.
  • The degree symbol (°), which is commonly used as an abbreviation for hours (e.g., “q 2-4°” for every 2-4 hours), should not be used, since it can be confused with a ‘0’ (zero). Further, the use of the degree symbol for primary, secondary, and tertiary (1°, 2°, and 3°) is discouraged, since the former could be confused with quantities (i.e. 10, 20 and 30, respectively).
  • Micrograms are abbreviated mcg rather than µg (which, if handwritten, could easily be mistaken for mg (milligrams). Even so, pharmacists must be on the alert for inadvertent over- or under-prescribing through a momentary lapse of concentration.


Many abbreviations are derived from Latin phrases. Hospital pharmacies have more abbreviations, some specific to the hospital. Different jurisdictions follow different conventions on what is abbreviated or not. Prescriptions that do not follow area conventions may be flagged as possible forgeries.

Some abbreviations that are ambiguous, or that in their written form might be confused with something else, are not recommended and should be avoided. These are flagged in the table in the main article. However, all abbreviations carry an increased risk for confusion and misinterpretation and should be used cautiously.

Non-Prescription Drug Prescriptions

Over-the-counter medications and non-controlled medical supplies such as dressings, which do not require a prescription, may also be prescribed. Depending upon a jurisdiction’s medical system, non-prescription drugs may be prescribed because drug benefit plans may reimburse the patient only if the over-the-counter medication is taken at the direction of a qualified medical practitioner. In the countries of the UK, National Health Service (NHS) prescriptions are either free or have a fixed price per item; a prescription may be issued so the patient does not have to purchase the item at commercial price.

Some medical software requires a prescription.

Legislation may define certain equipment as “prescription devices”. Such prescription devices can only be used under the supervision of authorised personnel and such authorisation is typically documented using a prescription. Examples of prescription devices include dental cement (for affixing braces to tooth surfaces), various prostheses, gut sutures, sickle cell tests, cervical cap and ultrasound monitor.

In some jurisdictions, hypodermic syringes are in a special class of their own, regulated as illicit drug use accessories separate from regular medical legislation. Such legislation often allows syringes to be dispensed only with a prescription.

Use of Technology

As a prescription is nothing more than information among a prescriber, pharmacist and patient, information technology can be applied to it. Existing information technology is adequate to print out prescriptions. Hospital information systems in some hospitals do away with prescriptions within the hospital. There are proposals to securely transmit the prescription from the prescriber to the pharmacist using smartcard or the internet. In the UK a project called the Electronic Transfer of Prescriptions (ETP) within the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) is currently piloting such a scheme between prescribers and pharmacies.

Within computerised pharmacies, the information on paper prescriptions is recorded into a database. Afterwards, the paper prescription is archived for storage and legal reasons.

A pharmacy chain is often linked together through corporate headquarters with computer networking. A person who has a prescription filled at one branch can get a refill of that prescription at any other store in the chain, as well as have their information available for new prescriptions at any branch.

Some online pharmacies also offer services to customers over the internet, allowing users to specify the store that they will pick up the medicine from.

Many pharmacies now offer services to ship prescription refills right to the patient’s home. They also offer mail service where you can mail in a new, original prescription and a signed document, and they will ship the filled prescription back to you.

Pharmacy information systems are a potential source of valuable information for pharmaceutical companies as it contains information about the prescriber’s prescribing habits. Prescription data mining of such data is a developing, specialised field.

Many prescribers lack the digitised information systems that reduce prescribing errors. To reduce these errors, some investigators have developed modified prescription forms that prompt the prescriber to provide all the desired elements of a good prescription. The modified forms also contain predefined choices such as common quantities, units and frequencies that the prescriber may circle rather than write out. Such forms are thought to reduce errors, especially omission and handwriting errors and are actively under evaluation.

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_prescription >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.

What is a Prescription Drug?


A prescription drug (also prescription medication or prescription medicine) is a pharmaceutical drug that legally requires a medical prescription to be dispensed. In contrast, over-the-counter drugs can be obtained without a prescription. The reason for this difference in substance control is the potential scope of misuse, from drug abuse to practicing medicine without a license and without sufficient education. Different jurisdictions have different definitions of what constitutes a prescription drug.

In North America, ℞, usually printed as “Rx”, is used as an abbreviation of the word “prescription”. It is a contraction of the Latin word “recipe” (an imperative form of “recipere”) meaning “take”. Prescription drugs are often dispensed together with a monograph (in Europe, a Patient Information Leaflet or PIL) that gives detailed information about the drug.

The use of prescription drugs has been increasing since the 1960s.



In Australia, the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Medicines and Poisons (SUSMP) governs the manufacture and supply of drugs with several categories:

  • Schedule 1 – Defunct Drug.
  • Schedule 2 – Pharmacy Medicine.
  • Schedule 3 – Pharmacist-Only Medicine.
  • Schedule 4 – Prescription-Only Medicine/Prescription Animal Remedy.
  • Schedule 5 – Caution/Poison.
  • Schedule 6 – Poison.
  • Schedule 7 – Dangerous Poison.
  • Schedule 8 – Controlled Drug (Possession without authority illegal).
  • Schedule 9 – Prohibited Substance (Possession illegal without a license legal only for research purposes).
  • Schedule 10 – Controlled Poison.
  • Unscheduled Substances.

As in other developed countries, the person requiring a prescription drug attends the clinic of a qualified health practitioner, such as a physician, who may write the prescription for the required drug.

Many prescriptions issued by health practitioners in Australia are covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, a scheme that provides subsidised prescription drugs to residents of Australia to ensure that all Australians have affordable and reliable access to a wide range of necessary medicines. When purchasing a drug under the PBS, the consumer pays no more than the patient co-payment contribution, which, as of 01 January 2022, is A$42.50 for general patients. Those covered by government entitlements (low-income earners, welfare recipients, Health Care Card holders, etc.) and or under the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (RPBS) have a reduced co-payment, which is A$6.80 in 2022. The co-payments are compulsory and can be discounted by pharmacies up to a maximum of A$1.00 at cost to the pharmacy.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the Medicines Act 1968 and the Prescription Only Medicines (Human Use) Order 1997 contain regulations that cover the supply of sale, use, prescribing and production of medicines. There are three categories of medicine:

  • Prescription-only medicines (POM), which may be dispensed (sold in the case of a private prescription) by a pharmacist only to those to whom they have been prescribed.
  • Pharmacy medicines (P), which may be sold by a pharmacist without a prescription.
  • General sales list (GSL) medicines, which may be sold without a prescription in any shop.

The possession of a prescription-only medicine without a prescription is legal unless it is covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

A patient visits a medical practitioner or dentist, who may prescribe drugs and certain other medical items, such as blood glucose-testing equipment for diabetics. Also, qualified and experienced nurses and pharmacists may be independent prescribers. Both may prescribe all POMs (including controlled drugs), but may not prescribe Schedule 1 controlled drugs, and 3 listed controlled drugs for the treatment of addiction; which is similar to doctors, who require a special license from the Home Office to prescribe schedule 1 drugs. Schedule 1 drugs have little or no medical benefit, hence their limitations on prescribing. District nurses and health visitors have had limited prescribing rights since the mid-1990s; until then, prescriptions for dressings and simple medicines had to be signed by a doctor. Once issued, a prescription is taken by the patient to a pharmacy, which dispenses the medicine.

Most prescriptions are NHS prescriptions, subject to a standard charge that is unrelated to what is dispensed. The NHS prescription fee was increased to £9.15 per item in England on 01 April 2020; prescriptions are free of charge if prescribed and dispensed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and for some patients in England, such as inpatients, children, those over 60s or with certain medical conditions, and claimants of certain benefits. The pharmacy charges the NHS the actual cost of the medicine, which may vary from a few pence to hundreds of pounds. A patient can consolidate prescription charges by using a prescription payment certificate (informally a “season ticket”), effectively capping costs at £29.60 per quarter or £105.90 per year.

Outside the NHS, private prescriptions are issued by private medical practitioner and sometimes under the NHS for medicines that are not covered by the NHS. A patient pays the pharmacy the normal price for medicine prescribed outside the NHS.

Survey results published by Ipsos MORI in 2008 found that around 800,000 people in England were not collecting prescriptions or getting them dispensed because of the cost, the same as in 2001.

United States

In the United States, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act defines what substances require a prescription for them to be dispensed by a pharmacy. The federal government authorises physicians (of any specialty), physician assistants, nurse practitioners and other advanced practice nurses, veterinarians, dentists, and optometrists to prescribe any controlled substance. They are then issued unique DEA numbers; many other mental and physical health technicians, including basic-level registered nurses, medical assistants, emergency medical technicians, most psychologists, and social workers, for example, do not have the authority to prescribe any legend drugs or controlled drugs. Legend drugs are another name for drugs requiring a prescription.

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was enacted into law by the US Congress of the United States in 1970. It is the federal drug law that regulates manufacture, importation, possession, use, and distribution of controlled substances. The legislation classes these substances into five schedules, with varying qualifications for each schedule. The schedules are designated schedule I, schedule II, schedule III, schedule IV, and schedule V. Many drugs require a prescription, even though they are not a controlled substance.

The safety and the effectiveness of prescription drugs in the US are regulated by the 1987 Prescription Drug Marketing Act (PDMA). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with implementing the law.

Misuse or abuse of prescription drugs can lead to adverse drug events, including those due to dangerous drug interactions.

The package insert for a prescription drug contains information about the intended effect of the drug and how it works in the body. It also contains information about side effects, how a patient should take the drug, and cautions for its use, including warnings about allergies.

As a general rule, over-the-counter drugs (OTC) are used to treat a condition that does not need care from a healthcare professional if have been proven to meet higher safety standards for self-medication by patients. Often, a lower strength of a drug will be approved for OTC use, but higher strengths require a prescription to be obtained; a notable case is ibuprofen, which has been widely available as an OTC pain killer since the mid-1980s, but it is available by prescription in doses up to four times the OTC dose for severe pain that is not adequately controlled by the OTC strength.

Herbal preparations, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and other food supplements are regulated by the FDA as dietary supplements. Because specific health claims cannot be made, the consumer must make informed decisions when purchasing such products.

By law, American pharmacies operated by “membership clubs” such as Costco and Sam’s Club must allow non-members to use their pharmacy services and may not charge more for these services than they charge as their members.

Physicians may legally prescribe drugs for uses other than those specified in the FDA approval, known as off-label use. Drug companies, however, are prohibited from marketing their drugs for off-label uses.

Large US retailers that operate pharmacies and pharmacy chains use inexpensive generic drugs as a way to attract customers into stores. Several chains, including Walmart, Kroger (including subsidiaries such as Dillons), Target, and others, offer $4 monthly prescriptions on select generic drugs as a customer draw. Publix Supermarkets, which has pharmacies in many of their stores, offered free prescriptions on a few older but still effective medications to their customers, the programme ended in 2022. The maximum supply is for 30 days.

Some prescription drugs are commonly abused, particularly those marketed as analgesics, including fentanyl (Duragesic), hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), oxymorphone (Opana), propoxyphene (Darvon), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), and diphenoxylate (Lomotil).

Some prescription painkillers have been found to be addictive, and unintentional poisoning deaths in the United States have skyrocketed since the 1990s according to the National Safety Council. Prescriber education guidelines as well as patient education, prescription drug monitoring programs and regulation of pain clinics are regulatory tactics which have been used to curtail opioid use and misuse.

Expiration Date

The expiration date, required in several countries, specifies the date up to which the manufacturer guarantees the full potency and safety of a drug. In the United States, expiration dates are determined by regulations established by the FDA. The FDA advises consumers not to use products after their expiration dates.

A study conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration covered over 100 drugs, prescription and over-the-counter. The results showed that about 90% of them were safe and effective far past their original expiration date. At least one drug worked 15 years after its expiration date. Joel Davis, a former FDA expiration-date compliance chief, said that with a handful of exceptions – notably nitroglycerin, insulin, some liquid antibiotics; outdated tetracyclines can cause Fanconi syndrome – most expired drugs are probably effective.

The American Medical Association (AMA) issued a report and statement on Pharmaceutical Expiration Dates. The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide notes that, with rare exceptions, “it’s true the effectiveness of a drug may decrease over time, but much of the original potency still remains even a decade after the expiration date”.

The expiration date is the final day that the manufacturer guarantees the full potency and safety of a medication. Drug expiration dates exist on most medication labels, including prescription, over-the-counter (OTC) and dietary (herbal) supplements. US pharmaceutical manufacturers are required by law to place expiration dates on prescription products prior to marketing. For legal and liability reasons, manufacturers will not make recommendations about the stability of drugs past the original expiration date.


Prices for prescription drugs vary widely around the world. Prescription costs for biosimilar and generic drugs are usually less than brand names, but the cost is different from one pharmacy to another.

Prescription drug prices including generic prices are rising faster than the average rate of inflation. To lower prescription drug costs, some US patients buy medicine in Canada or online.

Generics undergo strict scrutiny to meet the equal efficacy, safety, dosage, strength, stability, and quality of brand name drugs. Generics are developed after the brand name has already been established, and so generic drug approval in many aspects has a shortened approval process because it replicates the brand name drug.

Brand name drugs cost more due to time, money, and resources that drug companies invest in in order to repeat research clinical trials that the FDA requires for the drug to remain in the market. Because drug companies have to invest more in research costs to do this, brand name drug prices are much higher when sold to consumers.

When the patent expires for a brand name drug, generic versions of that drug are produced by other companies and are sold for lower price. By switching to generic prescription drugs, patients can save significant amounts of money: e.g. one study by the FDA showed an example with more than 50% savings of a patient’s overall costs of their prescription drugs.

Drug Cost Containment Strategies in the US

In the United States there are many resources available to patients to lower the costs of medication. These include co-payments, coinsurance, and deductibles. The Medicaid Drug Rebate Programme is another example.

Generic drug programs lower the amount of money patients have to pay when picking up their prescription at the pharmacy. As their name implies, they only cover generic drugs.

Co-pay assistance programmes are programmes that help patients lower the costs of specialty medications; i.e., medications that are on restricted formularies, have limited distribution, and/or have no generic version available. These medications can include drugs for HIV, hepatitis C, and multiple sclerosis. Patient Assistance Programme Centre (RxAssist) has a list of foundations that provide co-pay assistance programmes. It is important to note that co-pay assistance programmes are for under-insured patients. Patients without insurance are not eligible for this resource; however, they may be eligible for patient assistance programmes.

Patient assistance programmes are funded by the manufacturer of the medication. Patients can often apply to these programs through the manufacturer’s website. This type of assistance programme is one of the few options available to uninsured patients.

The out-of-pocket cost for patients enrolled in co-pay assistance or patient assistance programmes is $0. It is a major resource to help lower costs of medications – however, many providers and patients are not aware of these resources.


Traces of prescription drugs – including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilisers and sex hormones – have been detected in drinking water. Pharmaceutically active compounds (PhACs) discarded from human therapy and their metabolites have been found to not be eliminated by sewage treatment plants and have been found at low concentrations in surface waters downstream from those plants. The continuous discarding of incompletely treated water may interact with other environmental chemicals and lead to uncertain ecological effects. Due to most pharmaceuticals being highly soluble, fish and other aquatic organisms are susceptible to their effects. The long term effects of pharmaceuticals in the environment may affect survival and reproduction of such organisms. However, levels of medical drug waste in the water is at a low enough level that it is not a direct concern to human health. However, processes, such as biomagnification, are potential human health concerns.

On the other hand, there is clear evidence of harm to aquatic animals and fauna. Recent advancements in technology have allowed scientists to detect smaller, trace quantities of pharmaceuticals in the ng/ml range. Despite being found such low concentrations, female hormonal contraceptives have been documented to cause feminising effects on male vertebrate species, such as fish, frogs and crocodiles. A promising model has been developed to further study the effects on the aquatic environment. The biological read across model combines the concepts of the mechanism of action (MoA) and adverse outcomes pathway (AOP). In other words, the species being studied needs to have similar mechanisms by which the pharmaceutical acts on the species and reach similar concentrations that would be enough to cause an effect in humans. Studying these relations may give us more quantifiable information on the effects of pharmaceuticals in the environment.

Currently, research is being done on various methods of reducing chemical waste in the environment. In addition, FDA established guidelines in 2007 to inform consumers should dispose of prescription drugs. When medications do not include specific disposal instructions, patients should not flush medications in the toilet, but instead use medication take-back programmes. This aims to reduce the amount of pharmaceutical waste that gets into sewage and landfills. If no take-back programs are available, prescription drugs can be discarded in household trash after they are crushed and/or dissolved and then mixed in a separate container or sealable bag with undesirable substances like cat litter or other unappealing material (to discourage consumption).

This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prescription_drug >; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA.