Pharmacology is a subject at the heart of many academic subjects and professional degrees – such as pharmacy, medicine, dentistry, nursing, and pharmacology itself. But what is pharmacology, what does it cover, and why is it so important?

Pharmacology is, at its most fundamental level, the branch of medicine associated with how and why drugs work the way they do. What constitutes a ‘drug’ differs, as the drug could be natural, synthetic, or endogenous in origin.

Pharmacology is, then, a very broad subject; a subject that is always on the lookout for new and exciting opportunities in the treatment of disease. It’s a subject that plays an important role not just in the academic arena, but also in professional clinical practice, too.

Branches of pharmacology

There are many different branches of pharmacology, some of which can be found in the table below. Instead of the general title of ‘pharmacologist’, most graduates and experts in the subject are fluent in one specific aspect of the subject.

For example, academics interested in how drugs affect the brain and nervous system would be called neuropharmacologists, whereas experts interested in how medicines affect behaviour would be called psychopharmacologists.

Branch of pharmacology What it concerns
Clinical pharmacology Application of pharmacology in the clinical setting
Neuropharmacology Drugs that affect the nervous system
Psychopharmacology Drugs that affect behaviour
Pharmacogenetics How drugs respond to genetic variation
Pharmacogenomics How the genome responds to drugs
Toxicology Study of the adverse effects of drugs
Posology Study of how drugs are dosed

And this is not an exhaustive list!

Pharmacology is, as a discipline, becoming more and more popular among aspiring undergraduates. Many universities now offer a degree in the subject, with Master’s degrees and doctorates focussing on specific aspects of this interesting and relevant subject.

What is pharmacology – L-ADME?

There is another way in which we can answer the question – what is pharmacology – and that is to think about L-ADME.

What is L-ADME, you say?

L-ADME is a mnemonic, a term used by pharmacologists to summarise a great deal of what the subject of pharmacology is all about. First, though, let’s take a look at the broader picture – considering the two main branches of pharmacology:

  • Pharmacodynamics
  • Pharmacokinetics

Pharmacodynamics is concerned with the drug’s effect on the body, whereas pharmacokinetics is concerned with the body’s effect on the drug.

What is pharmacology?

L-ADME is very much connected with the pharmacokinetic branch of pharmacology. Let’s take a quick look at what each letter of this mnemonic means:

  • L – (Liberation) How the drug is released from the medicine
  • A – (Absorption) How the drug is absorbed by the body
  • D – (Distribution) How the drug is distributed throughout the body
  • M – (Metabolism) How the drug is metabolised by the body
  • E – (Excretion) How the drug is removed from the body

As you can see, pharmacology is a broad discipline that places drug action at its core. In a slightly broader sense, the subject looks at how drugs work (their mechanism of action), their side effects (whether adverse or therapeutic), and how the drug interacts with other drugs.

So in answering the question – what is pharmacology – we’re left with little else to say other than to say that it is subject as broad as it is deep!