Up until the mid 1950s psychiatrists had very few pharmacological tools in their arsenal. It was in 1955, Dr. Leo Sternbach synthesized a new type of mild sedative, called a “benzodiazepine” (Shorter, 2013). This new drug was designed to reduce the activity of nerves in the brain and spinal cord, in order to treat insomnia, anxiety, and psychosis (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020). Today benzodiazepines, like Xanax and Valium, have made their way into our cultural zeitgeist as both a helpful reprieve and a drug of abuse. Today we are going to break down “Benzos!”
As we have discussed in previous articles, neurons release neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine) to send signals across the synapse (space between 2 neurons) to reach a target neuron. While we often talk about how these signals can activate neurons, it is important to understand that they can also inhibit them! In the nervous system, Gamma Aminobutyric Acid, commonly called GABA, is the most commonly used inhibitory neurotransmitter (Boonstra et al., 2015).
Benzodiazepines reduce activity in the brain and spinal cord by increasing the effectiveness of GABA, leading to more inhibition of neurons. Essentially, the benzodiazepine molecules will bind to the same receptors that GABA normally binds to. In doing this, the benzodiazepine causes the receptor to become more sensitive to GABA, allowing it to activate from less GABA (Campo-Soria, Chang, & Weiss, 2006).
Benzos have become an incredibly effective tool for treating insomnia and anxiety, however, this comes at a price. Benzos are meant to be used for short-term periods of time, as they are relatively addictive (Britannica, 2021). We would like to remind you that drugs we take modify our nervous systems in significant ways. It is for this reason that we encourage people to work with a psychiatrist if you employ pharmacological help. These doctors are trained to know the ins and outs of these medications and can help you find meaningful, and safe treatments!