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What Are Barbiturates?

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The basic structure of barbiturates.

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Question: What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are a class of drugs derived from barbituric acid that act as depressants to the central nervous system. These drugs are frequently used for medical reasons as sedatives or anesthetics.

History of Barbiturates

German researcher Adolph von Baeyer was the first to synthesize barbituric acid. Barbital (Veronal) was the first barbiturate and was used for medical purposes in 1903. Barbiruates were frequently used to treat agitation, anxiety and insomnia, but their use for treating such symptoms fell out of favor due to the risk of overdose and abuse.

Effects of Barbiturates

The pharmacological actions of barbiturates include depressing nerve activity in the cardiac, smooth and skeletal muscles. These drugs also affect the CNS in several different ways and can produce effects ranging from mild sedation to a coma depending upon the dosage. Low doses of barbiturates can lower anxiety levels and relieve tension, while higher doses can decrease the heart rate and blood pressure.

Barbiturates do have some severe drawbacks, including:

  • Potentially dangerous interactions with other drugs.
  • Lack of safety and selectivity.
  • A tendency to create dependence, tolerance, abuse and withdrawal.

Examples of Barbiturates

  • Allobarbital
  • Amobarbital
  • Barbital
  • Pentobarbital
  • Phenobarbital
  • Secobarbital

Today, benzodiazepines are usually used in place of barbiturates for medical purposes. Barbiturates are not the preferred choice due to their narrow margin of safety and highly addictive properties.

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