What is a Psycholeptic?

Introduction

In pharmacology, a psycholeptic is a medication which produces a calming effect upon a person.

Refer to Analeptic.

Background

Such medications include barbiturates, benzodiazepines, nonbenzodiazepines, phenothiazines, opiates/opioids, carbamates, ethanol, 2-methyl-2-butanol, cannabinoids (in some classifications), some antidepressants, neuroleptics, and some anticonvulsants.

Many herbal medicines may also be classified as psycholeptics (e.g. kava).

Psycholeptics are classified under N05 in the Anatomical Therapeutic Chemical Classification System.

What is a Barbiturate?

Introduction

A barbiturate is a drug that acts as a central nervous system depressant.

Barbiturates are effective as anxiolytics, hypnotics, and anticonvulsants, but have physical and psychological addiction potential as well as overdose potential among other possible adverse effects. They have largely been replaced by benzodiazepines and nonbenzodiazepines (“Z-drugs”) in routine medical practice, particularly in the treatment of anxiety and insomnia, due to the significantly lower risk of addiction and overdose and the lack of an antidote for barbiturate overdose. Despite this, barbiturates are still in use for various purposes: in general anaesthesia, epilepsy, treatment of acute migraines or cluster headaches, acute tension headaches, euthanasia, capital punishment, and assisted suicide.

The name barbiturate originates from the fact that they are all chemical derivatives of barbituric acid.

Refer to Psycholeptic.

Brief History

Barbituric acid was first synthesized 27 November 1864, by German chemist Adolf von Baeyer. This was done by condensing urea with diethyl malonate. There are several stories about how the substance got its name. The most likely story is that Baeyer and his colleagues went to celebrate their discovery in a tavern where the town’s artillery garrison were also celebrating the feast of Saint Barbara – the patron saint of artillerymen. An artillery officer is said to have christened the new substance by amalgamating Barbara with urea. Another story was barbiturate was invented on the feast day of St. Barbara. Another story holds that Baeyer synthesized the substance from the collected urine of a Munich waitress named Barbara. No substance of medical value was discovered, however, until 1903 when two German scientists working at Bayer, Emil Fischer and Joseph von Mering, discovered that barbital was very effective in putting dogs to sleep. Barbital was then marketed by Bayer under the trade name Veronal. It is said that Mering proposed this name because the most peaceful place he knew was the Italian city of Verona.

It was not until the 1950s that the behavioural disturbances and physical dependence potential of barbiturates became recognised.

Barbituric acid itself does not have any direct effect on the central nervous system and chemists have derived over 2,500 compounds from it that possess pharmacologically active qualities. The broad class of barbiturates is further broken down and classified according to speed of onset and duration of action. Ultrashort-acting barbiturates are commonly used for anaesthesia because their extremely short duration of action allows for greater control. These properties allow doctors to rapidly put a patient “under” in emergency surgery situations. Doctors can also bring a patient out of anaesthesia just as quickly, should complications arise during surgery. The middle two classes of barbiturates are often combined under the title “short/intermediate-acting.” These barbiturates are also employed for anaesthetic purposes, and are also sometimes prescribed for anxiety or insomnia. This is not a common practice anymore, however, owing to the dangers of long-term use of barbiturates; they have been replaced by the benzodiazepines and Z-drugs such as zolpidem, zaleplon and eszopiclone for sleep. The final class of barbiturates are known as long-acting barbiturates (the most notable one being phenobarbital, which has a half-life of roughly 92 hours). This class of barbiturates is used almost exclusively as anticonvulsants, although on rare occasions they are prescribed for daytime sedation. Barbiturates in this class are not used for insomnia, because, owing to their extremely long half-life, patients would awake with a residual “hang-over” effect and feel groggy.

Barbiturates can in most cases be used either as the free acid or as salts of sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, lithium, etc. Codeine- and Dionine-based salts of barbituric acid have been developed. In 1912, Bayer introduced another barbituric acid derivative, phenobarbital, under the trade name Luminal, as a sedative-hypnotic.

Uses

Medicine

Barbiturates such as phenobarbital were long used as anxiolytics and hypnotics. Intermediate-acting barbiturates reduce time to fall asleep, increase total sleep time, and reduce REM sleep time. Today they have been largely replaced by benzodiazepines for these purposes because the latter are less toxic in drug overdose. However, barbiturates are still used as anticonvulsants (e.g. phenobarbital and primidone) and general anaesthetics (e.g. sodium thiopental).

Barbiturates in high doses are used for medical aid in dying, and in combination with a muscle relaxant for euthanasia and for capital punishment by lethal injection. Barbiturates are frequently employed as euthanising agents in small-animal veterinary medicine.

Interrogation

Sodium thiopental is an ultra-short-acting barbiturate that is marketed under the name Sodium Pentothal. It is often mistaken for “truth serum”, or sodium amytal, an intermediate-acting barbiturate that is used for sedation and to treat insomnia, but was also used in so-called sodium amytal “interviews” where the person being questioned would be much more likely to provide the truth whilst under the influence of this drug. When dissolved in water, sodium amytal can be swallowed, or it can be administered by intravenous injection. The drug does not itself force people to tell the truth, but is thought to decrease inhibitions and slow creative thinking, making subjects more likely to be caught off guard when questioned, and increasing the possibility of the subject revealing information through emotional outbursts. Lying is somewhat more complex than telling the truth, especially under the influence of a sedative-hypnotic drug.

The memory-impairing effects and cognitive impairments induced by sodium thiopental are thought to reduce a subject’s ability to invent and remember lies. This practice is no longer considered legally admissible in court due to findings that subjects undergoing such interrogations may form false memories, putting the reliability of all information obtained through such methods into question. Nonetheless, it is still employed in certain circumstances by defence and law enforcement agencies as a “humane” alternative to torture interrogation when the subject is believed to have information critical to the security of the state or agency employing the tactic.

Chemistry

In 1988, the synthesis and binding studies of an artificial receptor binding barbiturates by six complementary hydrogen bonds was published. Since this first article, different kind of receptors were designed, as well as different barbiturates and cyanurates, not for their efficiencies as drugs but for applications in supramolecular chemistry, in the conception of materials and molecular devices.

Sodium barbital and barbital have also been used as pH buffers for biological research, e.g. in immuno-electrophoresis or in fixative solutions.

Side Effects

There are special risks to consider for older adults, and women who are pregnant. When a person ages, the body becomes less able to rid itself of barbiturates. As a result, people over the age of sixty-five are at higher risk of experiencing the harmful effects of barbiturates, including drug dependence and accidental overdose. When barbiturates are taken during pregnancy, the drug passes through the placenta to the foetus. After the baby is born, it may experience withdrawal symptoms and have trouble breathing. In addition, nursing mothers who take barbiturates may transmit the drug to their babies through breast milk. A rare adverse reaction to barbiturates is Stevens-Johnson syndrome, which primarily affects the mucous membranes.

Tolerance and Dependence

Refer to Barbiturate Dependence.

With regular use, tolerance to the effects of barbiturates develops. Research shows tolerance can develop with even one administration of a barbiturate. As with all GABAergic drugs, barbiturate withdrawal produces potentially fatal effects such as seizures, in a manner reminiscent of delirium tremens and benzodiazepine withdrawal although its more direct mechanism of GABA agonism makes barbiturate withdrawal even more severe than that of alcohol or benzodiazepines (subsequently making it one of the most dangerous withdrawals of any known addictive substance). Similarly to benzodiazepines, the longer acting barbiturates produce a less severe withdrawal syndrome than short acting and ultra-short acting barbiturates. Withdrawal symptoms are dose-dependent with heavier users being more affected than lower-dose addicts.

The pharmacological treatment of barbiturate withdrawal is an extended process often consisting of converting the patient to a long-acting benzodiazepine (i.e. Valium), followed by slowly tapering off the benzodiazepine. Mental cravings for barbiturates can last for months or years in some cases and counselling/support groups are highly encouraged by addiction specialists. Patients should never try to tackle the task of discontinuing barbiturates without consulting a doctor, due to the high lethality and relatively sudden onset of the withdrawal. Attempting to quit “cold turkey” may result in serious neurological damage, severe physical injuries received during convulsions, and even death via glutamatergic excitotoxicity.

Overdose

Refer to Barbiturate Overdose.

Some symptoms of an overdose typically include sluggishness, incoordination, difficulty in thinking, slowness of speech, faulty judgement, drowsiness, shallow breathing, staggering, and, in severe cases, coma or death. The lethal dosage of barbiturates varies greatly with tolerance and from one individual to another. The lethal dose is highly variable among different members of the class, with superpotent barbiturates such as pentobarbital being potentially fatal in considerably lower doses than the low-potency barbiturates such as butalbital. Even in inpatient settings, the development of tolerance is still a problem, as dangerous and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms can result when the drug is stopped after dependence has developed. Tolerance to the anxiolytic and sedative effects of barbiturates tends to develop faster than tolerance to their effects on smooth muscle, respiration, and heart rate, making them generally unsuitable for a long time psychiatric use. Tolerance to the anticonvulsant effects tends to correlate more with tolerance to physiological effects, however, meaning that they are still a viable option for long-term epilepsy treatment.

Barbiturates in overdose with other CNS (central nervous system) depressants (e.g. alcohol, opiates, benzodiazepines) are even more dangerous due to additive CNS and respiratory depressant effects. In the case of benzodiazepines, not only do they have additive effects, barbiturates also increase the binding affinity of the benzodiazepine binding site, leading to exaggerated benzodiazepine effects. (e.g. If a benzodiazepine increases the frequency of channel opening by 300%, and a barbiturate increases the duration of their opening by 300%, then the combined effects of the drugs increases the channels’ overall function by 900%, not 600%).

The longest-acting barbiturates have half-lives of a day or more, and subsequently result in bioaccumulation of the drug in the system. The therapeutic and recreational effects of long-acting barbiturates wear off significantly faster than the drug can be eliminated, allowing the drug to reach toxic concentrations in the blood following repeated administration (even when taken at the therapeutic or prescribed dose) despite the user feeling little or no effects from the plasma-bound concentrations of the drug. Users who consume alcohol or other sedatives after the drug’s effects have worn off, but before it has cleared the system, may experience a greatly exaggerated effect from the other sedatives which can be incapacitating or even fatal.

Barbiturates induce a number of hepatic CYP enzymes (most notably CYP2C9, CYP2C19, and CYP3A4), leading to exaggerated effects from many prodrugs and decreased effects from drugs which are metabolised by these enzymes to inactive metabolites. This can result in fatal overdoses from drugs such as codeine, tramadol, and carisoprodol, which become considerably more potent after being metabolised by CYP enzymes. Although all known members of the class possess relevant enzyme induction capabilities, the degree of induction overall as well as the impact on each specific enzyme span a broad range, with phenobarbital and secobarbital being the most potent enzyme inducers and butalbital and talbutal being among the weakest enzyme inducers in the class.

People who are known to have committed suicide by barbiturate overdose include Charles Boyer, Ruan Lingyu, Dalida, Jeannine “The Singing Nun” Deckers, Felix Hausdorff, Abbie Hoffman, Phyllis Hyman, C.P. Ramanujam, George Sanders, Jean Seberg, Lupe Vélez and the members of Heaven’s Gate cult. Others who have died as a result of barbiturate overdose include Pier Angeli, Brian Epstein, Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, Inger Stevens, Dinah Washington, Ellen Wilkinson, and Alan Wilson; in some cases these have been speculated to be suicides as well. Those who died of a combination of barbiturates and other drugs include Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Dorothy Kilgallen, Malcolm Lowry, Edie Sedgwick and Kenneth Williams. Dorothy Dandridge died of either an overdose or an unrelated embolism. Ingeborg Bachmann may have died of the consequences of barbiturate withdrawal (she was hospitalised with burns, the doctors treating her not being aware of her barbiturate addiction).

Mechanism of Action

Barbiturates act as positive allosteric modulators and, at higher doses, as agonists of GABAA receptors. GABA is the principal inhibitory neurotransmitter in the mammalian central nervous system (CNS). Barbiturates bind to the GABAA receptor at multiple homologous transmembrane pockets located at subunit interfaces,[19] which are binding sites distinct from GABA itself and also distinct from the benzodiazepine binding site. Like benzodiazepines, barbiturates potentiate the effect of GABA at this receptor. In addition to this GABAergic effect, barbiturates also block AMPA and kainate receptors, subtypes of ionotropic glutamate receptor. Glutamate is the principal excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian CNS. Taken together, the findings that barbiturates potentiate inhibitory GABAA receptors and inhibit excitatory AMPA receptors can explain the superior CNS-depressant effects of these agents to alternative GABA potentiating agents such as benzodiazepines and quinazolinones. At higher concentration, they inhibit the Ca2+-dependent release of neurotransmitters such as glutamate via an effect on P/Q-type voltage-dependent calcium channels. Barbiturates produce their pharmacological effects by increasing the duration of chloride ion channel opening at the GABAA receptor (pharmacodynamics: This increases the efficacy of GABA), whereas benzodiazepines increase the frequency of the chloride ion channel opening at the GABAA receptor (pharmacodynamics: This increases the potency of GABA). The direct gating or opening of the chloride ion channel is the reason for the increased toxicity of barbiturates compared to benzodiazepines in overdose.

Further, barbiturates are relatively non-selective compounds that bind to an entire superfamily of ligand-gated ion channels, of which the GABAA receptor channel is only one of several representatives. This Cys-loop receptor superfamily of ion channels includes the neuronal nACh receptor channel, the 5-HT3 receptor channel, and the glycine receptor channel. However, while GABAA receptor currents are increased by barbiturates (and other general anaesthetics), ligand-gated ion channels that are predominantly permeable for cationic ions are blocked by these compounds. For example, neuronal nAChR channels are blocked by clinically relevant anaesthetic concentrations of both thiopental and pentobarbital. Such findings implicate (non-GABA-ergic) ligand-gated ion channels, e.g. the neuronal nAChR channel, in mediating some of the (side) effects of barbiturates. This is the mechanism responsible for the (mild to moderate) anaesthetic effect of barbiturates in high doses when used in anaesthetic concentration.

Society and Culture

Legal Status

During World War II, military personnel in the Pacific region were given “goofballs” to allow them to tolerate the heat and humidity of daily working conditions. Goofballs were distributed to reduce the demand on the respiratory system, as well as maintaining blood pressure, to combat the extreme conditions. Many soldiers returned with addictions that required several months of rehabilitation before discharge. This led to growing dependency problems, often exacerbated by indifferent doctors prescribing high doses to unknowing patients through the 1950s and 1960s.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, an increasing number of published reports of barbiturate overdoses and dependence problems led physicians to reduce their prescription, particularly for spurious requests. This eventually led to the scheduling of barbiturates as controlled drugs.

In the Netherlands, the Opium Law classifies all barbiturates as List II drugs, with the exception of secobarbital, which is on List I.

There is a small group of List II drugs for which doctors have to write the prescriptions according to the same, tougher guidelines as those for List I drugs (writing the prescription in full in letters, listing the patients name, and have to contain the name and initials, address, city and telephone number of the licensed prescriber issuing the prescriptions, as well as the name and initials, address and city of the person the prescription is issued to). Among that group of drugs are the barbiturates amobarbital, butalbital, cyclobarbital, and pentobarbital.

In the United States, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified most barbiturates as controlled substances – and they remain so as of September 2020. Barbital, methylphenobarbital (also known as mephobarbital), and phenobarbital are designated schedule IV drugs, and “Any substance which contains any quantity of a derivative of barbituric acid, or any salt of a derivative of barbituric acid” (all other barbiturates) were designated as being schedule III. Under the original CSA, no barbiturates were placed in schedule I, II, or V; however, amobarbital, pentobarbital, and secobarbital are schedule II controlled substances unless they are in a suppository dosage form.

In 1971, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances was signed in Vienna. Designed to regulate amphetamines, barbiturates, and other synthetics, the 34th version of the treaty, as of 25 January 2014, regulates secobarbital as schedule II, amobarbital, butalbital, cyclobarbital, and pentobarbital as schedule III, and allobarbital, barbital, butobarbital, mephobarbital, phenobarbital, butabarbital, and vinylbital as schedule IV on its “Green List”. The combination medication Fioricet, consisting of butalbital, caffeine, and paracetamol (acetaminophen), however, is specifically exempted from controlled substance status, while its sibling Fiorinal, which contains aspirin instead of paracetamol and may contain codeine phosphate, remains a schedule III drug.

Recreational Use

Recreational users report that a barbiturate high gives them feelings of relaxed contentment and euphoria. Physical and psychological dependence may also develop with repeated use. Chronic misuse of barbiturates is associated with significant morbidity. One study found that 11% of males and 23% of females with a sedative-hypnotic misuse die by suicide. Other effects of barbiturate intoxication include drowsiness, lateral and vertical nystagmus, slurred speech and ataxia, decreased anxiety, and loss of inhibitions. Barbiturates are also used to alleviate the adverse or withdrawal effects of illicit drug use, in a manner similar to long-acting benzodiazepines such as diazepam and clonazepam. Often polysubstance use occurs and barbiturates are consumed with or substituted by other available substances, most commonly alcohol.

People who use substances tend to prefer short-acting and intermediate-acting barbiturates. The most commonly used are amobarbital (Amytal), pentobarbital (Nembutal), and secobarbital (Seconal). A combination of amobarbital and secobarbital (called Tuinal) is also highly used. Short-acting and intermediate-acting barbiturates are usually prescribed as sedatives and sleeping pills. These pills begin acting fifteen to forty minutes after they are swallowed, and their effects last from five to six hours.

Slang terms for barbiturates include barbs, barbies, bluebirds, dolls, wallbangers, yellows, downers, goofballs, sleepers, ‘reds & blues’, and tooties.

What is Quazepam?

Introduction

Quazepam (marketed under brand names Doral, Dormalin) is a relatively long-acting benzodiazepine derivative drug developed by the Schering Corporation in the 1970s.

Quazepam is indicated for the treatment of insomnia including sleep induction and sleep maintenance. Quazepam induces impairment of motor function and has relatively (and uniquely) selective hypnotic and anticonvulsant properties with considerably less overdose potential than other benzodiazepines (due to its novel receptor-subtype selectively). Quazepam is an effective hypnotic which induces and maintains sleep without disruption of the sleep architecture.

Brief History

It was patented in 1970 and came into medical use in 1985.

Medical Uses

Quazepam is used for short-term treatment of insomnia related to sleep induction or sleep maintenance problems and has demonstrated superiority over other benzodiazepines such as temazepam. It had a fewer incidence of side effects than temazepam, including less sedation, amnesia, and less motor-impairment. Usual dosage is 7.5 to 15 mg orally at bedtime.

Quazepam is effective as a premedication prior to surgery.

Side Effects

Quazepam has fewer side effects than other benzodiazepines and less potential to induce tolerance and rebound effects. There is significantly less potential for quazepam to induce respiratory depression or to adversely affect motor coordination than other benzodiazepines. The different side effect profile of quazepam may be due to its more selective binding profile to type 1 benzodiazepine receptors.

  • Ataxia.
  • Daytime somnolence.
  • Hypokinesia.
  • Cognitive and performance impairments.

In September 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required the boxed warning be updated for all benzodiazepine medicines to describe the risks of abuse, misuse, addiction, physical dependence, and withdrawal reactions consistently across all the medicines in the class.

Tolerance and Dependence

Tolerance may occur to quazepam but more slowly than seen with other benzodiazepines such as triazolam. Quazepam causes significantly less drug tolerance and less withdrawal symptoms including less rebound insomnia upon discontinuation compared to other benzodiazepines. Quazepam may cause less rebound effects than other type1 benzodiazepine receptor selective nonbenzodiazepine drugs due to its longer half-life. Short-acting hypnotics often cause next day rebound anxiety. Quazepam due to its pharmacological profile does not cause next day rebound withdrawal effects during treatment.

No firm conclusions can be drawn, however, whether long-term use of quazepam does not produce tolerance as few, if any, long-term clinical trials extending beyond 4 weeks of chronic use have been conducted. Quazepam should be withdrawn gradually if used beyond 4 weeks of use to avoid the risk of a severe benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome developing. Very high dosage administration over prolonged periods of time, up to 52 weeks, of quazepam in animal studies provoked severe withdrawal symptoms upon abrupt discontinuation, including excitability, hyperactivity, convulsions and the death of two of the monkeys due to withdrawal-related convulsions. More monkeys died, however, in the diazepam-treated monkeys. In addition it has now been documented in the medical literature that one of the major metabolites of quazepam, N-desalkyl-2-oxoquazepam (N-desalkylflurazepam), which is long-acting and prone to accumulation, binds unselectively to benzodiazepine receptors, thus quazepam may not differ all that much pharmacologically from other benzodiazepines.

Special Precautions

Benzodiazepines require special precaution if used in the during pregnancy, in children, alcohol or drug-dependent individuals and individuals with comorbid psychiatric disorders.

Quazepam and its active metabolites are excreted into breast milk.

Accumulation of one of the active metabolites of quazepam, N-desalkylflurazepam, may occur in the elderly. A lower dose may be required in the elderly.

Elderly

Quazepam is more tolerable for elderly patients compared to flurazepam due to its reduced next day impairments. However, another study showed marked next day impairments after repeated administration due to accumulation of quazepam and its long-acting metabolites. Thus the medical literature shows conflicts on quazepam’s side effect profile. A further study showed significant balance impairments combined with an unstable posture after administration of quazepam in test subjects. An extensive review of the medical literature regarding the management of insomnia and the elderly found that there is considerable evidence of the effectiveness and durability of non-drug treatments for insomnia in adults of all ages and that these interventions are underutilised. Compared with the benzodiazepines including quazepam, the nonbenzodiazepine sedative/hypnotics appeared to offer few, if any, significant clinical advantages in efficacy or tolerability in elderly persons. It was found that newer agents with novel mechanisms of action and improved safety profiles, such as the melatonin agonists, hold promise for the management of chronic insomnia in elderly people. Long-term use of sedative/hypnotics for insomnia lacks an evidence base and has traditionally been discouraged for reasons that include concerns about such potential adverse drug effects as cognitive impairment (anterograde amnesia), daytime sedation, motor incoordination, and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents and falls. In addition, the effectiveness and safety of long-term use of these agents remain to be determined. It was concluded that more research is needed to evaluate the long-term effects of treatment and the most appropriate management strategy for elderly persons with chronic insomnia.

Interactions

The absorption rate is likely to be significantly reduced if quazepam is taken in the fasted state reducing the hypnotic effect of quazepam. If 3 or more hours have passed since eating food then some food should be eaten before taking quazepam.

Pharmacology

Quazepam is a trifluoroalkyl type of benzodiazepine. Quazepam is unique amongst benzodiazepines in that it selectively targets the GABAA α1 subunit receptors which are responsible for inducing sleep. Its mechanism of action is very similar to zolpidem and zaleplon in its pharmacology and can successfully substitute for zolpidem and zaleplon in animal studies.

Quazepam is selective for type I benzodiazepine receptors containing the α1 subunit, similar to other drugs such as zaleplon and zolpidem. As a result, quazepam has little or no muscle relaxant properties. Most other benzodiazepines are unselective and bind to type1 GABAA receptors and type2 GABAA receptors. Type1 GABAA receptors include the α1 subunit containing GABAA receptors which are responsible for hypnotic properties of the drug. Type 2 receptors include the α2, α3 and α5 subunits which are responsible for anxiolytic action, amnesia and muscle relaxant properties. Thus quazepam may have less side effects than other benzodiazepines but, it has a very long half-life of 25 hours which reduces its benefits as a hypnotic due to likely next day sedation. It also has two active metabolites with half-lives of 28 and 79 hours. Quazepam may also cause less drug tolerance than other benzodiazepines such as temazepam and triazolam perhaps due to its subtype selectivity. The longer half-life of quazepam may have the advantage however, of causing less rebound insomnia than shorter acting subtype selective nonbenzodiazepines. However, one of the major metabolites of quazepam, the N-desmethyl-2-oxoquazepam (aka N-desalkylflurazepam), binds unselectively to both type1 and type2 GABAA receptors. The N-desmethyl-2-oxoquazepam metabolite also has a very long half-life and likely contributes to the pharmacological effects of quazepam.

Pharmacokinetics

Quazepam has an absorption half-life of 0.4 hours with a peak in plasma levels after 1.75 hours. It is eliminated both renally and through faeces. The active metabolites of quazepam are 2-oxoquazepam and N-desalkyl-2-oxoquazepam. The N-desalkyl-2-oxoquazepam metabolite has only limited pharmacological activity compared to the parent compound quazepam and the active metabolite 2-oxoquazepam. Quazepam and its major active metabolite 2-oxoquazepam both show high selectivity for the type1 GABAA receptors. The elimination half-life range of quazepam is between 27 and 41 hours.

Mechanism of Action

Quazepam modulates specific GABAA receptors via the benzodiazepine site on the GABAA receptor. This modulation enhances the actions of GABA, causing an increase in opening frequency of the chloride ion channel which results in an increased influx of chloride ions into the GABAA receptors. Quazepam, unique amongst benzodiazepine drugs selectively targets type1 benzodiazepine receptors which results reduced sleep latency in promotion of sleep. Quazepam also has some anticonvulsant properties.

EEG and Sleep

Quazepam has potent sleep inducing and sleep maintaining properties. Studies in both animals and humans have demonstrated that EEG changes induced by quazepam resemble normal sleep patterns whereas other benzodiazepines disrupt normal sleep. Quazepam promotes slow wave sleep. This positive effect of quazepam on sleep architecture may be due to its high selectivity for type1 benzodiazepine receptors as demonstrated in animal and human studies. This makes quazepam unique in the benzodiazepine family of drugs.

Drug Misuse

Refer to Benzodiazepine Use Disorder.

Quazepam is a drug with the potential for misuse. Two types of drug misuse can occur, either recreational misuse where the drug is taken to achieve a high, or when the drug is continued long term against medical advice.

What are the Effects of Long-Term Benzodiazepine Use?

Introduction

The effects of long-term benzodiazepine use include drug dependence and neurotoxicity as well as the possibility of adverse effects on cognitive function, physical health, and mental health.

Long term use is sometimes described as use not shorter than three months. Benzodiazepines are generally effective when used therapeutically in the short term, but even then the risk of dependency can be significantly high. There are significant physical, mental and social risks associated with the long-term use of benzodiazepines. Although anxiety can temporarily increase as a withdrawal symptom, there is evidence that a reduction or withdrawal from benzodiazepines can lead in the long run to a reduction of anxiety symptoms. Due to these increasing physical and mental symptoms from long-term use of benzodiazepines, slow withdrawal is recommended for long-term users. Not everyone, however, experiences problems with long-term use.

Some of the symptoms that could possibly occur as a result of a withdrawal from benzodiazepines after long-term use include emotional clouding, flu-like symptoms, suicide, nausea, headaches, dizziness, irritability, lethargy, sleep problems, memory impairment, personality changes, aggression, depression, social deterioration as well as employment difficulties, while others never have any side effects from long-term benzodiazepine use. Abruptly or rapidly stopping benzodiazepines can be dangerous; when withdrawing a gradual reduction in dosage is recommended, under professional supervision.

While benzodiazepines are highly effective in the short term, adverse effects associated with long-term use, including impaired cognitive abilities, memory problems, mood swings, and overdoses when combined with other drugs, may make the risk-benefit ratio unfavourable. In addition, benzodiazepines have reinforcing properties in some individuals and thus are considered to be addictive drugs, especially in individuals that have a “drug-seeking” behaviour; further, a physical dependence can develop after a few weeks or months of use. Many of these adverse effects associated with long-term use of benzodiazepines begin to show improvements three to six months after withdrawal.

Other concerns about the effects associated with long-term benzodiazepine use, in some, include dose escalation, benzodiazepine use disorder, tolerance and benzodiazepine dependence and benzodiazepine withdrawal problems. Both physiological tolerance and dependence can be associated with worsening the adverse effects associated with benzodiazepines. Increased risk of death has been associated with long-term use of benzodiazepines in several studies; however, other studies have not found increased mortality. Due to conflicting findings in studies regarding benzodiazepines and increased risks of death including from cancer, further research in long-term use of benzodiazepines and mortality risk has been recommended; most of the available research has been conducted in prescribed users, even less is known about illicit misusers. The long-term use of benzodiazepines is controversial and has generated significant debate within the medical profession. Views on the nature and severity of problems with long-term use of benzodiazepines differ from expert to expert and even from country to country; some experts even question whether there is any problem with the long-term use of benzodiazepines.

Brief History

Benzodiazepines when introduced in 1961 were widely believed to be safe drugs but as the decades went by increased awareness of adverse effects connected to their long-term use became known. Recommendations for more restrictive medical guidelines followed. Concerns regarding the long-term effects of benzodiazepines have been raised since 1980. These concerns are still not fully answered. A review in 2006 of the literature on use of benzodiazepine and nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics concluded that more research is needed to evaluate the long-term effects of hypnotic drugs. The majority of the problems of benzodiazepines are related to their long-term use rather than their short-term use. There is growing evidence of the harm of long-term use of benzodiazepines, especially at higher doses. In 2007, the Department of Health recommended that individuals on long-term benzodiazepines be monitored at least every 3 months and also recommended against long-term substitution therapy in benzodiazepine drug misusers due to a lack of evidence base for effectiveness and due to the risks of long-term use. The long-term effects of benzodiazepines are very similar to the long-term effects of alcohol consumption (apart from organ toxicity) and other sedative-hypnotics. Withdrawal effects and dependence are not identical. Dependence can be managed, with a medical professional of course, but withdrawal can be fatal. Physical dependence and withdrawal are very much related but not the same thing. A report in 1987 by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Great Britain reported that any benefits of long-term use of benzodiazepines are likely to be far outweighed by the risks of long-term use. Despite this benzodiazepines are still widely prescribed. The socioeconomic costs of the continued widespread prescribing of benzodiazepines is high.

Political Controversy

In 1980, the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) recommended that research be conducted into the effects of long-term use of benzodiazepines. A 2009 British Government parliamentary inquiry recommended that research into the long-term effects of benzodiazepines must be carried out. The view of the Department of Health is that they have made every effort to make doctors aware of the problems associated with the long-term use of benzodiazepines, as well as the dangers of benzodiazepine drug addiction.

In 1980, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency’s Committee on the Safety of Medicines issued guidance restricting the use of benzodiazepines to short-term use and updated and strengthened these warnings in 1988. When asked by Phil Woolas in 1999 whether the Department of Health had any plans to conduct research into the long-term effects of benzodiazepines, the Department replied, saying they have no plans to do so, as benzodiazepines are already restricted to short-term use and monitored by regulatory bodies. In a House of Commons debate, Phil Woolas claimed that there had been a cover-up of problems associated with benzodiazepines because they are of too large of a scale for governments, regulatory bodies, and the pharmaceutical industry to deal with. John Hutton stated in response that the Department of Health took the problems of benzodiazepines extremely seriously and was not sweeping the issue under the carpet. In 2010, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction filed a complaint with the Equality and Human Rights Commission under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 against the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions alleging discrimination against people with a benzodiazepine prescription drug dependence as a result of denial of specialised treatment services, exclusion from medical treatment, non-recognition of the protracted benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome, as well as denial of rehabilitation and back-to-work schemes. Additionally the APPGITA complaint alleged that there is a “virtual prohibition” on the collection of statistical information on benzodiazepines across government departments, whereas with other controlled drugs there are enormous volumes of statistical data. The complaint alleged that the discrimination is deliberate, large scale and that government departments are aware of what they are doing.

Declassified Medical Research Council Meeting

The UK Medical Research Council (MRC) held a closed meeting among top UK medical doctors and representatives from the pharmaceutical industry between the dates of 30 October 1980 and 3 April 1981. The meeting was classified under the Public Records Act 1958 until 2014 but became available in 2005 as a result of the Freedom of Information Act. The meeting was called due to concerns that 10-100,000 people could be dependent; meeting chairman Professor Malcolm Lader later revised this estimate to include approximately half a million members of the British public suspected of being dependent on therapeutic dose levels of benzodiazepines, with about half of those on long-term benzodiazepines. It was reported that benzodiazepines may be the third- or fourth-largest drug problem in the UK (the largest being alcohol and tobacco). The Chairman of the meeting followed up after the meeting with additional information, which was forwarded to the Medical Research Council neuroscience board, raising concerns regarding tests that showed definite cortical atrophy in 2 of 14 individuals tested and borderline abnormality in five others. He felt that, due to the methodology used in assessing the scans, the abnormalities were likely an underestimate, and more refined techniques would be more accurate. Also discussed were findings that tolerance to benzodiazepines can be demonstrated by injecting diazepam into long-term users; in normal subjects, increases in growth hormone occurs, whereas in benzodiazepine-tolerant individuals this effect is blunted. Also raised were findings in animal studies that showed the development of tolerance in the form of a 15% reduction in binding capacity of benzodiazepines after seven days administration of high doses of the partial agonist benzodiazepine drug flurazepam and a 50% reduction in binding capacity after 30 days of a low dose of diazepam. The Chairman was concerned that papers soon to be published would “stir the whole matter up” and wanted to be able to say that the Medical Research Council “had matters under consideration if questions were asked in parliament”. The Chairman felt that it “was very important, politically that the MRC should be ‘one step ahead'” and recommended epidemiological studies be funded and carried out by Roche Pharmaceuticals and MRC sponsored research conducted into the biochemical effects of long-term use of benzodiazepines. The meeting aimed to identify issues that were likely to arise, alert the Department of Health to the scale of the problem and identify the pharmacology and nature of benzodiazepine dependence and the volume of benzodiazepines being prescribed. The World Health Organisation (WHO) was also interested in the problem and it was felt the meeting would demonstrate to the WHO that the MRC was taking the issue seriously. Among the psychological effects of long-term use of benzodiazepines discussed was a reduced ability to cope with stress. The Chairman stated that the “withdrawal symptoms from valium were much worse than many other drugs including, e.g. heroin”. It was stated that the likelihood of withdrawing from benzodiazepines was “reduced enormously” if benzodiazepines were prescribed for longer than four months. It was concluded that benzodiazepines are often prescribed inappropriately, for a wide range of conditions and situations. Dr Mason (DHSS) and Dr Moir (SHHD) felt that, due to the large numbers of people using benzodiazepines for long periods of time, it was important to determine the effectiveness and toxicity of benzodiazepines before deciding what regulatory action to take.

Controversy resulted in 2010 when the previously secret files came to light over the fact that the Medical Research Council was warned that benzodiazepines prescribed to millions of patients appeared to cause cerebral atrophy similar to hazardous alcohol use in some patients and failed to carry out larger and more rigorous studies. The Independent on Sunday reported allegations that “scores” of the 1.5 million members of the UK public who use benzodiazepines long-term have symptoms that are consistent with brain damage. It has been described as a “huge scandal” by Jim Dobbin, and legal experts and MPs have predicted a class action lawsuit. A solicitor said she was aware of the past failed litigation against the drug companies and the relevance the documents had to that court case and said it was strange that the documents were kept ‘hidden’ by the MRC.

Professor Lader, who chaired the MRC meeting, declined to speculate as to why the MRC declined to support his request to set up a unit to further research benzodiazepines and why they did not set up a special safety committee to look into these concerns. Professor Lader stated that he regrets not being more proactive on pursuing the issue, stating that he did not want to be labelled as the guy who pushed only issues with benzos. Professor Ashton also submitted proposals for grant-funded research using MRI, EEG, and cognitive testing in a randomised controlled trial to assess whether benzodiazepines cause permanent damage to the brain, but similarly to Professor Lader was turned down by the MRC.

The MRC spokesperson said they accept the conclusions of Professor Lader’s research and said that they fund only research that meets required quality standards of scientific research, and stated that they were and continue to remain receptive to applications for research in this area. No explanation was reported for why the documents were sealed by the Public Records Act.

Jim Dobbin, who chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction, stated that:

Many victims have lasting physical, cognitive and psychological problems even after they have withdrawn. We are seeking legal advice because we believe these documents are the bombshell they have been waiting for. The MRC must justify why there was no proper follow-up to Professor Lader’s research, no safety committee, no study, nothing to further explore the results. We are talking about a huge scandal here.

The legal director of Action Against Medical Accidents said urgent research must be carried out and said that, if the results of larger studies confirm Professor Lader’s research, the government and MRC could be faced with one of the biggest group actions for damages the courts have ever seen, given the large number of people potentially affected. People who report enduring symptoms post-withdrawal such as neurological pain, headaches, cognitive impairment, and memory loss have been left in the dark as to whether these symptoms are drug-induced damage or not due to the MRC’s inaction, it was reported. Professor Lader reported that the results of his research did not surprise his research group given that it was already known that alcohol could cause permanent brain changes.

Class-Action Lawsuit

Benzodiazepines spurred the largest-ever class-action lawsuit against drug manufacturers in the UK, in the 1980s and early 1990s, involving 14,000 patients and 1,800 law firms that alleged the manufacturers knew of the potential for dependence but intentionally withheld this information from doctors. At the same time, 117 general practitioners and 50 health authorities were sued by patients to recover damages for the harmful effects of dependence and withdrawal. This led some doctors to require a signed consent form from their patients and to recommend that all patients be adequately warned of the risks of dependence and withdrawal before starting treatment with benzodiazepines. The court case against the drug manufacturers never reached a verdict; legal aid had been withdrawn, leading to the collapse of the trial, and there were allegations that the consultant psychiatrists, the expert witnesses, had a conflict of interest. This litigation led to changes in British law, making class-action lawsuits more difficult.

Symptoms

Effects of long-term benzodiazepine use may include disinhibition, impaired concentration and memory, depression, as well as sexual dysfunction. The long-term effects of benzodiazepines may differ from the adverse effects seen after acute administration of benzodiazepines. An analysis of cancer patients found that those who took tranquillisers or sleeping tablets had a substantially poorer quality of life on all measurements conducted, as well as a worse clinical picture of symptomatology. Worsening of symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, pain, dyspnoea and constipation was found when compared against those who did not take tranquillisers or sleeping tablets. Most individuals who successfully discontinue hypnotic therapy after a gradual taper and do not take benzodiazepines for 6 months have less severe sleep and anxiety problems, are less distressed and have a general feeling of improved health at 6-month follow-up. The use of benzodiazepines for the treatment of anxiety has been found to lead to a significant increase in healthcare costs due to accidents and other adverse effects associated with the long-term use of benzodiazepines.

Cognitive Status

Long-term benzodiazepine use can lead to a generalised impairment of cognition, including sustained attention, verbal learning and memory and psychomotor, visuo-motor and visuo-conceptual abilities. Transient changes in the brain have been found using neuroimaging studies, but no brain abnormalities have been found in patients treated long term with benzodiazepines. When benzodiazepine users cease long-term benzodiazepine therapy, their cognitive function improves in the first six months, although deficits may be permanent or take longer than six months to return to baseline. In the elderly, long-term benzodiazepine therapy is a risk factor for amplifying cognitive decline, although gradual withdrawal is associated with improved cognitive status. A study of alprazolam found that 8 weeks administration of alprazolam resulted in deficits that were detectable after several weeks but not after 3.5 years.

Effect on Sleep

Sleep architecture can be adversely affected by benzodiazepine dependence. Possible adverse effects on sleep include induction or worsening of sleep disordered breathing. Like alcohol, benzodiazepines are commonly used to treat insomnia in the short term (both prescribed and self-medicated), but worsen sleep in the long term. Although benzodiazepines can put people to sleep, while asleep, the drugs disrupt sleep architecture, decreasing sleep time, delayed and decreased REM sleep, increased alpha and beta activity, decreased K complexes and delta activity, and decreased deep slow-wave sleep (i.e. NREM stages 3 and 4, the most restorative part of sleep for both energy and mood).

Mental and Physical Health

The long-term use of benzodiazepines may have a similar effect on the brain as alcohol, and is also implicated in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mania, psychosis, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunction, delirium, and neurocognitive disorders. However a 2016 study found no association between long-term usage and dementia. As with alcohol, the effects of benzodiazepine on neurochemistry, such as decreased levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, are believed to be responsible for their effects on mood and anxiety. Additionally, benzodiazepines can indirectly cause or worsen other psychiatric symptoms (e.g. mood, anxiety, psychosis, irritability) by worsening sleep (i.e. benzodiazepine-induced sleep disorder).

Long-term benzodiazepine use may lead to the creation or exacerbation of physical and mental health conditions, which improve after six or more months of abstinence. After a period of about 3 to 6 months of abstinence after completion of a gradual-reduction regimen, marked improvements in mental and physical wellbeing become apparent. For example, one study of hypnotic users gradually withdrawn from their hypnotic medication reported after six months of abstinence that they had less severe sleep and anxiety problems, were less distressed, and had a general feeling of improved health. Those who remained on hypnotic medication had no improvements in their insomnia, anxiety, or general health ratings. A study found that individuals having withdrawn from benzodiazepines showed a marked reduction in use of medical and mental health services.

Approximately half of patients attending mental health services for conditions including anxiety disorders such as panic disorder or social phobia may be the result of alcohol or benzodiazepine dependence. Sometimes anxiety disorders precede alcohol or benzodiazepine dependence but the alcohol or benzodiazepine dependence often acts to keep the anxiety disorders going and often progressively makes them worse. Many people who are addicted to alcohol or prescribed benzodiazepines decide to quit when it is explained to them they have a choice between ongoing ill mental health or quitting and recovering from their symptoms. It was noted that because every individual has an individual sensitivity level to alcohol or sedative hypnotic drugs, what one person can tolerate without ill health will cause another to suffer very ill health, and that even moderate drinking in sensitive individuals can cause rebound anxiety syndromes and sleep disorders. A person who is suffering the toxic effects of alcohol or benzodiazepines will not benefit from other therapies or medications as they do not address the root cause of the symptoms. Recovery from benzodiazepine dependence tends to take a lot longer than recovery from alcohol, but people can regain their previous good health. A review of the literature regarding benzodiazepine hypnotic drugs concluded that these drugs cause an unjustifiable risk to the individual and to public health. The risks include dependence, accidents and other adverse effects. Gradual discontinuation of hypnotics leads to improved health without worsening of sleep.

Daily users of benzodiazepines are also at a higher risk of experiencing psychotic symptomatology such as delusions and hallucinations. A study found that of 42 patients treated with alprazolam, up to a third of long-term users of the benzodiazepine drug alprazolam (Xanax) develop depression. Studies have shown that long-term use of benzodiazepines and the benzodiazepine receptor agonist nonbenzodiazepine Z drugs are associated with causing depression as well as a markedly raised suicide risk and an overall increased mortality risk.

A study of 50 patients who attended a benzodiazepine withdrawal clinic found that, after several years of chronic benzodiazepine use, a large portion of patients developed health problems including agoraphobia, irritable bowel syndrome, paraesthesia, increasing anxiety, and panic attacks, which were not pre-existing. The mental health and physical health symptoms induced by long-term benzodiazepine use gradually improved significantly over a period of a year following completion of a slow withdrawal. Three of the 50 patients had wrongly been given a preliminary diagnosis of multiple sclerosis when the symptoms were actually due to chronic benzodiazepine use. Ten of the patients had taken drug overdoses whilst on benzodiazepines, despite the fact that only two of the patients had any prior history of depressive symptomatology. After withdrawal, no patients took any further overdoses after one year post-withdrawal. The cause of the deteriorating mental and physical health in a significant proportion of patients was hypothesised to be caused by increasing tolerance where withdrawal-type symptoms emerged, despite the administration of stable prescribed doses. Another theory is that chronic benzodiazepine use causes subtle increasing toxicity, which in turn leads to increasing psychopathology in long-term users of benzodiazepines.

Long-term use of benzodiazepines can induce perceptual disturbances and depersonalisation in some people, even in those taking a stable daily dosage, and it can also become a protracted withdrawal feature of the benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome.

In addition, chronic use of benzodiazepines is a risk factor for blepharospasm. Drug-induced symptoms that resemble withdrawal-like effects can occur on a set dosage as a result of prolonged use, also documented with barbiturate-like substances, as well as alcohol and benzodiazepines. This demonstrates that the effects from chronic use of benzodiazepine drugs are not unique but occur with other GABAergic sedative hypnotic drugs, i.e. alcohol and barbiturates.

Immune System

Chronic use of benzodiazepines seemed to cause significant immunological disorders in a study of selected outpatients attending a psychopharmacology department. Diazepam and clonazepam have been found to have long-lasting, but not permanent, immunotoxic effects in fetuses of rats. However, single very high doses of diazepam have been found to cause lifelong immunosuppression in neonatal rats. No studies have been done to assess the immunotoxic effects of diazepam in humans; however, high prescribed doses of diazepam, in humans, have been found to be a major risk of pneumonia, based on a study of people with tetanus. It have been proposed that diazepam may cause long-lasting changes to the GABAA receptors with resultant long-lasting disturbances to behaviour, endocrine function and immune function.

Suicide and Self-Harm

Use of prescribed benzodiazepines is associated with an increased rate of attempted and completed suicide. The prosuicidal effects of benzodiazepines are suspected to be due to a psychiatric disturbance caused by side effects or withdrawal symptoms. Because benzodiazepines in general may be associated with increased suicide risk, care should be taken when prescribing, especially to at-risk patients. Depressed adolescents who were taking benzodiazepines were found to have a greatly increased risk of self-harm or suicide, although the sample size was small. The effects of benzodiazepines in individuals under the age of 18 requires further research. Additional caution is required in using benzodiazepines in depressed adolescents. Benzodiazepine dependence often results in an increasingly deteriorating clinical picture, which includes social deterioration leading to comorbid alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder. Benzodiazepine misuse or misuse of other CNS depressants increases the risk of suicide in drug misusers. Benzodiazepine has several risks based on its biochemical function and symptoms associated with this medication like exacerbation of sleep apnoea, sedation, suppression of self-care functions, amnesia and disinhibition are suggested as a possible explanation to the increase in mortality. Studies also demonstrate that an increased mortality associated with benzodiazepine use has been clearly documented among ‘drug misusers’.

Carcinogenicity

There has been some controversy around the possible link between benzodiazepine use and development of cancer; early cohort studies in the 1980s suggested a possible link, but follow-up case-control studies have found no link between benzodiazepines and cancer. In the second US national cancer study in 1982, the American Cancer Society conducted a survey of over 1.1 million participants. A markedly increased risk of cancer was found in users of sleeping pills, mainly benzodiazepines. Fifteen epidemiologic studies have suggested that benzodiazepine or nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic drug use is associated with increased mortality, mainly due to increased cancer death. The cancers included cancer of the brain, lung, bowel, breast, and bladder, and other neoplasms. It has been hypothesised that benzodiazepines depress immune function and increase viral infections and could be the cause or trigger of the increased rate of cancer. While initially US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviewers expressed concerns about approving the nonbenzodiazepine Z drugs due to concerns of cancer, ultimately they changed their minds and approved the drugs. A 2017 meta-analysis of multiple observational studies found that benzodiazepine use is associated with increased cancer risk.

Brain Damage Evidence

In a study in 1980 in a group of 55 consecutively admitted patients having engaged in non-medical use of exclusively sedatives or hypnotics, neuropsychological performance was significantly lower and signs of intellectual impairment significantly more often diagnosed than in a matched control group taken from the general population. These results suggested a relationship between non-medical use of sedatives or hypnotics and cerebral disorder.

A publication asked in 1981 if lorazepam is more toxic than diazepam.

In a study in 1984, 20 patients having taken long-term benzodiazepines were submitted to brain CT scan examinations. Some scans appeared abnormal. The mean ventricular-brain ratio measured by planimetry was increased over mean values in an age- and sex-matched group of control subjects but was less than that in a group of alcoholics. There was no significant relationship between CT scan appearances and the duration of benzodiazepine therapy. The clinical significance of the findings was unclear.

In 1986, it was presumed that permanent brain damage may result from chronic use of benzodiazepines similar to alcohol-related brain damage.

In 1987, 17 inpatient people who used high doses of benzodiazepines non-medically have anecdotally shown enlarged cerebrospinal fluid spaces with associated cerebral atrophy. Cerebral atrophy reportedly appeared to be dose dependent with low-dose users having less atrophy than higher-dose users.

However, a CT study in 1987 found no evidence of cerebral atrophy in prescribed benzodiazepine users.

In 1989, in a 4- to 6-year follow-up study of 30 inpatient people who used benzodiazepines non-medically, Neuropsychological function was found to be permanently affected in some people long-term high dose non-medical use of benzodiazepines. Brain damage similar to alcoholic brain damage was observed. The CT scan abnormalities showed dilatation of the ventricular system. However, unlike people who consume excessive alcohol, people who use sedative hypnotic agents non-medically showed no evidence of widened cortical sulci. The study concluded that, when cerebral disorder is diagnosed in people who use high doses of sedative hypnotic benzodiazepines, it is often permanent.

A CT study in 1993 investigated brain damage in benzodiazepine users and found no overall differences to a healthy control group.

A study in 2000 found that long-term benzodiazepine therapy does not result in brain abnormalities.

Withdrawal from high-dose use of nitrazepam anecdotally was alleged in 2001 to have caused severe shock of the whole brain with diffuse slow activity on EEG in one patient after 25 years of use. After withdrawal, abnormalities in hypofrontal brain wave patterns persisted beyond the withdrawal syndrome, which suggested to the authors that organic brain damage occurred from chronic high-dose use of nitrazepam.

Professor Heather Ashton, a leading expert on benzodiazepines from Newcastle University Institute of Neuroscience, has stated that there is no structural damage from benzodiazepines, and advocates for further research into long-lasting or possibly permanent symptoms of long-term use of benzodiazepines as of 1996. She has stated that she believes that the most likely explanation for lasting symptoms is persisting but slowly resolving functional changes at the GABAA benzodiazepine receptor level. Newer and more detailed brain scanning technologies such as PET scans and MRI scans had as of 2002 to her knowledge never been used to investigate the question of whether benzodiazepines cause functional or structural brain damage.

A 2018 review of the research found a likely causative role between the use of benzodiazepines and an increased risk of dementia, but the exact nature of the relationship is still a matter of debate.

Special Populations

Neonatal Effects

Benzodiazepines have been found to cause teratogenic malformations. The literature concerning the safety of benzodiazepines in pregnancy is unclear and controversial. Initial concerns regarding benzodiazepines in pregnancy began with alarming findings in animals but these do not necessarily cross over to humans. Conflicting findings have been found in babies exposed to benzodiazepines. A recent analysis of the Swedish Medical Birth Register found an association with preterm births, low birth weight and a moderate increased risk for congenital malformations. An increase in pylorostenosis or alimentary tract atresia was seen. An increase in orofacial clefts was not demonstrated, however, and it was concluded that benzodiazepines are not major teratogens.

Neurodevelopmental disorders and clinical symptoms are commonly found in babies exposed to benzodiazepines in utero. Benzodiazepine-exposed babies have a low birth weight but catch up to normal babies at an early age, but smaller head circumferences found in benzo babies persists. Other adverse effects of benzodiazepines taken during pregnancy are deviating neurodevelopmental and clinical symptoms including craniofacial anomalies, delayed development of pincer grasp, deviations in muscle tone and pattern of movements. Motor impairments in the babies are impeded for up to 1 year after birth. Gross motor development impairments take 18 months to return to normal but fine motor function impairments persist. In addition to the smaller head circumference found in benzodiazepine-exposed babies mental retardation, functional deficits, long-lasting behavioural anomalies, and lower intelligence occurs.

Benzodiazepines, like many other sedative hypnotic drugs, cause apoptotic neuronal cell death. However, benzodiazepines do not cause as severe apoptosis to the developing brain as alcohol does. The prenatal toxicity of benzodiazepines is most likely due to their effects on neurotransmitter systems, cell membranes and protein synthesis. This, however, is complicated in that neuropsychological or neuropsychiatric effects of benzodiazepines, if they occur, may not become apparent until later childhood or even adolescence. A review of the literature found data on long-term follow-up regarding neurobehavioural outcomes is very limited. However, a study was conducted that followed up 550 benzodiazepine-exposed children, which found that, overall, most children developed normally. There was a smaller subset of benzodiazepine-exposed children who were slower to develop, but by four years of age most of this subgroup of children had normalised. There was a small number of benzodiazepine-exposed children who had continuing developmental abnormalities at 4-year follow-up, but it was not possible to conclude whether these deficits were the result of benzodiazepines or whether social and environmental factors explained the continuing deficits.

Concerns regarding whether benzodiazepines during pregnancy cause major malformations, in particular cleft palate, have been hotly debated in the literature. A meta analysis of the data from cohort studies found no link but meta analysis of case–control studies did find a significant increase in major malformations. (However, the cohort studies were homogenous and the case-control studies were heterogeneous, thus reducing the strength of the case-control results). There have also been several reports that suggest that benzodiazepines have the potential to cause a syndrome similar to foetal alcohol syndrome, but this has been disputed by a number of studies. As a result of conflicting findings, use of benzodiazepines during pregnancy is controversial. The best available evidence suggests that benzodiazepines are not a major cause of birth defects, i.e. major malformations or cleft lip or cleft palate.

Elderly

Significant toxicity from benzodiazepines can occur in the elderly as a result of long-term use. Benzodiazepines, along with antihypertensives and drugs affecting the cholinergic system, are the most common cause of drug-induced dementia affecting over 10 percent of patients attending memory clinics. Long-term use of benzodiazepines in the elderly can lead to a pharmacological syndrome with symptoms including drowsiness, ataxia, fatigue, confusion, weakness, dizziness, vertigo, syncope, reversible dementia, depression, impairment of intellect, psychomotor and sexual dysfunction, agitation, auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoid ideation, panic, delirium, depersonalisation, sleepwalking, aggressiveness, orthostatic hypotension and insomnia. Depletion of certain neurotransmitters and cortisol levels and alterations in immune function and biological markers can also occur. Elderly individuals who have been long-term users of benzodiazepines have been found to have a higher incidence of post-operative confusion. Benzodiazepines have been associated with increased body sway in the elderly, which can potentially lead to fatal accidents including falls. Discontinuation of benzodiazepines leads to improvement in the balance of the body and also leads to improvements in cognitive functions in the elderly benzodiazepine hypnotic users without worsening of insomnia.

A review of the evidence has found that whilst long-term use of benzodiazepines impairs memory, its association with causing dementia is not clear and requires further research. A more recent study found that benzodiazepines are associated with an increased risk of dementia and it is recommended that benzodiazepines be avoided in the elderly. A later study, however, found no increase in dementia associated with long-term usage of benzodiazepine.

What is an Anxiolytic?

Introduction

An anxiolytic (also anti-panic or anti-anxiety agent) is a medication or other intervention that reduces anxiety.

This effect is in contrast to anxiogenic agents which increase anxiety. Anxiolytic medications are used for the treatment of anxiety disorder and its related psychological and physical symptoms.

Medications

Barbiturates

Barbiturates are powerful anxiolytics but the risk of abuse and addiction is high. Many experts consider these drugs obsolete for treating anxiety but valuable for the short-term treatment of severe insomnia, though only after benzodiazepines or non-benzodiazepines have failed.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are prescribed to quell panic attacks. Benzodiazepines are also prescribed in tandem with an antidepressant for the latent period of efficacy associated with many ADs for anxiety disorder. There is risk of benzodiazepine withdrawal and rebound syndrome if BZDs are rapidly discontinued. Tolerance and dependence may occur. The risk of abuse in this class of medication is smaller than in that of barbiturates. Cognitive and behavioural adverse effects are possible.

Benzodiazepines include: Alprazolam (Xanax), Bromazepam, Chlordiazepoxide (Librium), Clonazepam (Klonopin), Diazepam (Valium), Lorazepam (Ativan), Oxazepam, Temazepam, and Triazolam.

Antidepressants

Antidepressant medications can reduce anxiety. The SSRIs paroxetine and lexapro and SNRIs venlafaxine and duloxetine are US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved to treat generalised anxiety disorder.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a class of medications used in the treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, OCD and some personality disorders. SSRIs can increase anxiety initially due to negative feedback through the serotonergic autoreceptors, for this reason a concurrent benzodiazepine can be used until the anxiolytic effect of the SSRI occurs.

Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors

Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRIs) include venlafaxine and duloxetine drugs. Venlafaxine, in extended release form, and duloxetine, are indicated for the treatment of GAD. SNRIs are as effective as SSRIs in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Tricyclic Antidepressants

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) have anxiolytic effects; however, side effects are often more troubling or severe and overdose is dangerous. They’re effective, but they’ve generally been replaced by antidepressants that cause fewer adverse effects. Examples include imipramine, doxepin, amitriptyline, nortriptyline and desipramine.

Tetracyclic Antidepressant

Tetracyclic antidepressants, such as Mirtazapine, have demonstrated anxiolytic effect comparable to SSRIs while rarely causing or exacerbating anxiety. Mirtazapine’s anxiety reduction tends to occur significantly faster than SSRIs.

Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are first generation antidepressants effective for anxiety treatment but their dietary restrictions, adverse effect profile and availability of newer medications have limited their use. MAOIs include phenelzine, isocarboxazid and tranylcypromine. Pyrazidol is a reversible MAOI that lacks dietary restriction.

Sympatholytics

Sympatholytics are a group of anti-hypertensives which inhibit activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Beta blockers reduce anxiety by decreasing heart rate and preventing shaking. Beta blockers include propranolol, oxprenolol, and metoprolol. The Alpha-1 agonist prazosin could be effective for PTSD. The Alpha-2 agonists clonidine and guanfacine have demonstrated both anxiolytic and anxiogenic effects.

Miscellaneous

Buspirone

Buspirone (Buspar) is a 5-HT1A receptor agonist used to treated generalised anxiety disorder. If an individual has taken a benzodiazepine, buspirone will be less effective.

Pregabalin

Pregabalin (Lyrica) produces anxiolytic effect after one week of use comparable to lorazepam, alprazolam, and venlafaxine with more consistent psychic and somatic anxiety reduction. Unlike BZDs, it does not disrupt sleep architecture nor does it cause cognitive or psychomotor impairment.

Hydroxyzine

Hydroxyzine (Atarax) is an antihistamine originally approved for clinical use by the FDA in 1956. Hydroxyzine has a calming effect which helps ameliorate anxiety. Hydroxyzine efficacy is comparable to benzodiazepines in the treatment of generalised anxiety disorder. Hydroxyzine is typically only used for short term anxiety relief.

Phenibut

Phenibut (Anvifen, Fenibut, Noofen) is an anxiolytic used in Russia. Phenibut is a GABAB receptor agonist, as well as an antagonist at α2δ subunit-containing voltage-dependent calcium channels (VDCCs), similarly to gabapentinoids like gabapentin and pregabalin. The medication is not approved by the FDA for use in the United States, but is sold online as a supplement.

Mebicar

Mebicar is an anxiolytic produced in Latvia and used in Eastern Europe. Mebicar has an effect on the structure of limbic-reticular activity, particularly on the hypothalamus, as well as on all 4 basic neuromediator systems – γ aminobutyric acid (GABA), choline, serotonin and adrenergic activity. Mebicar decreases noradrenaline, increases serotonin, and exerts no effect on dopamine.

Fabomotizole

Fabomotizole (Afobazole) is an anxiolytic drug launched in Russia in the early 2000s. Its mechanism of action is poorly defined, with GABAergic, NGF and BDNF release promoting, MT1 receptor agonism, MT3 receptor antagonism, and sigma agonism thought to have some involvement.

Bromantane

Bromantane is a stimulant drug with anxiolytic properties developed in Russia during the late 1980s. Bromantane acts mainly by facilitating the biosynthesis of dopamine, through indirect genomic upregulation of relevant enzymes (tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) and aromatic L-amino acid decarboxylase (AAAD).

Emoxypine

Emoxypine is an antioxidant that is also a purported anxiolytic. Its chemical structure resembles that of pyridoxine, a form of vitamin B6.

Menthyl Isovalerate

Menthyl isovalerate is a flavouring food additive marketed as a sedative and anxiolytic drug in Russia under the name Validol.

Racetams

Some racetam based drugs such as aniracetam can have an antianxiety effect.

Etifoxine

Having similar anxiolytic effects as benzodiazepine drugs, etifoxine does not produce the same levels of sedation and ataxia. Further, etifoxine does not affect memory and vigilance, and does not induce rebound anxiety, drug dependence, or withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol

Ethanol is sometimes used as an anxiolytic by self-medication. fMRI can measure the anxiolytic effects of alcohol in the human brain.

Alternatives to Medication

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, while exposure therapy is the recommended treatment for anxiety related phobias. Healthcare providers can guide those with anxiety disorder by referring them to self-help resources. Sometimes medication is combined with psychotherapy but research has not found a benefit of combined pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy versus monotherapy.

If CBT is found ineffective, both the Canadian and American medical associations then suggest the use of a potent, long lasting benzodiazepine such as clonazepam and an antidepressant, usually Prozac for its effectiveness.

What is Zolpidem?

Introduction

Zolpidem, sold under the brand name Ambien, among others, is a medication primarily used for the short-term treatment of sleeping problems. Guidelines recommend that it be used only after cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for insomnia and behavioural changes, such as sleep hygiene, have been tried. It decreases the time to sleep onset by about fifteen minutes and at larger doses helps people stay asleep longer. It is taken by mouth and is available in conventional tablets, sublingual tablets, or oral spray.

Common side effects include daytime sleepiness, headache, nausea, and diarrhoea. Other side effects include memory problems, hallucinations, and substance abuse. The previously recommended dose was decreased in 2013, by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to the immediate-release 10 mg for men, and 5 mg for women, in an attempt to reduce next-day somnolence. Newer extended-release formulations include the 6.25 mg for women, and 12.5 mg or 6.25 mg for men, which also cause next-day somnolence when used in higher doses. Additionally, driving the next morning is not recommended with either higher doses or the long-acting formulation. While flumazenil, a GABAA-receptor antagonist, can reverse zolpidem’s effects, usually supportive care is all that is recommended in overdose.

Zolpidem is a nonbenzodiazepine Z drug which acts as a sedative and hypnotic. Zolpidem is a GABAA receptor agonist of the imidazopyridine class. It works by increasing GABA effects in the central nervous system by binding to GABAA receptors at the same location as benzodiazepines. It generally has a half-life of two to three hours. This, however, is increased in those with liver problems.

Zolpidem was approved for medical use in the United States in 1992. It became available as a generic medication in 2007. Zolpidem is a Schedule IV controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA). More than ten million prescriptions are filled a year in the United States, making it one of the most commonly used treatments for sleeping problems. In 2018, it was the 60th most commonly prescribed medication in the United States, with more than 12 million prescriptions.

Brief History

Zolpidem was used in Europe starting in 1988, and was brought to market there by Synthelabo. Synthalabo and Searle collaborated to bring it to market in the US, and it was approved in the United States in 1992 under the brand name “Ambien”. It became available as a generic medication in 2007.

In 2015, the American Geriatrics Society said that zolpidem, eszopiclone, and zaleplon met the Beers criteria and should be avoided in individuals 65 and over “because of their association with harms balanced with their minimal efficacy in treating insomnia.” The AGS stated the strength of the recommendation that older adults avoid zolpidem is “strong” and the quality of evidence supporting it is “moderate.”

Medical Uses

Zolpidem is labelled for short-term (usually about two to six weeks) treatment of insomnia at the lowest possible dose. It may be used for both improving sleep onset, sleep onset latency, and staying asleep.

Guidelines from the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the European Sleep Research Society, and the American College of Physicians recommend medication for insomnia (including possibly zolpidem) only as a second line treatment after non-pharmacological treatment options have been tried (e.g. CBT for insomnia). This is based in part on a 2012 review which found that zolpidem’s effectiveness is nearly as much due to psychological effects as to the medication itself.

A lower-dose version (3.5 mg for men and 1.75 mg for women) is given as a tablet under the tongue and used for middle-of-the-night awakenings. It can be taken if there are at least 4 hours between the time of administration and when the person must be awake.

Contraindications

Zolpidem should not be taken by people with obstructive sleep apnoea, myasthenia gravis, severe liver disease, respiratory depression; or by children, or people with psychotic illnesses. It should not be taken by people who are or have been addicted to other substances.

Use of zolpidem may impair driving skills with a resultant increased risk of road traffic accidents. This adverse effect is not unique to zolpidem, but also occurs with other hypnotic drugs. Caution should be exercised by motor vehicle drivers. In 2013, the FDA recommended the dose for women be reduced and that prescribers should consider lower doses for men due to impaired function the day after taking the drug.

Zolpidem should not be prescribed to older people, who are more sensitive to the effects of hypnotics including zolpidem and are at an increased risk of falls and adverse cognitive effects, such as delirium and neurocognitive disorder.

Zolpidem has not been assigned to a pregnancy category by the FDA. Animal studies have revealed evidence of incomplete ossification and increased intrauterine foetal death at doses greater than seven times the maximum recommended human dose or higher; however, teratogenicity was not observed at any dose level. There are no controlled data in human pregnancy. In one case report, zolpidem was found in cord blood at delivery. Zolpidem is recommended for use during pregnancy only when benefits outweigh risks.

Adverse Effects

The most common adverse effects of:

  • Short-term use include headache (reported by 7% of people in clinical trials), drowsiness (2%), dizziness (1%), and diarrhoea (1%); and
  • Long-term use included drowsiness (8%), dizziness (5%), allergy (4%), sinusitis (4%), back pain (3%), diarrhoea (3%), drugged feeling (3%), dry mouth (3%), lethargy (3%), sore throat (3%), abdominal pain (2%), constipation (2%), heart palpitations (2%), lightheadedness (2%), rash (2%), abnormal dreams (1%), amnesia (1%), chest pain (1%), depression (1%), flu-like symptoms (1%), and sleep disorder (1%).

Zolpidem increases risk of depression, falls and bone fracture, poor driving, suppressed respiration, and has been associated with an increased risk of death. Upper and lower respiratory infections are also common (experienced by between 1 and 10% of people).

Residual ‘hangover’ effects, such as sleepiness and impaired psychomotor and cognitive function, may persist into the day following night-time administration. Such effects may impair the ability of users to drive safely and increase risks of falls and hip fractures. Around 3% of people taking zolpidem are likely to break a bone as a result of a fall due to impaired coordination caused by the drug.

Some users have reported unexplained sleepwalking while using zolpidem, as well as sleep driving, night eating syndrome while asleep, and performing other daily tasks while sleeping. Research by Australia’s National Prescribing Service found these events occur mostly after the first dose taken, or within a few days of starting therapy. In February 2008, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration attached a boxed warning concerning this adverse effect.

Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal

As zolpidem is associated with drug tolerance and substance dependence, its prescription guidelines are only for severe insomnia and short periods of use at the lowest effective dose. Tolerance to the effects of zolpidem can develop in some people in just a few weeks. Abrupt withdrawal may cause delirium, seizures, or other adverse effects, especially if used for prolonged periods and at high doses. When drug tolerance and physical dependence to zolpidem develop, treatment usually entails a gradual dose reduction over a period of months to minimise withdrawal symptoms, which can resemble those seen during benzodiazepine withdrawal. Failing that, an alternative method may be necessary for some people, such as a switch to a benzodiazepine equivalent dose of a longer-acting benzodiazepine drug, as for diazepam or chlordiazepoxide, followed by a gradual reduction in dose of the long-acting benzodiazepine. In people who are difficult to treat, an inpatient flumazenil administration allows for rapid competitive binding of flumazenil to GABAA-receptor as an antagonist, thus stopping (a effectively detoxifying) zolpidem from being able to bind as an agonist on GABAA-receptor; slowly drug dependence or addiction to zolpidem will wane.

Alcohol has cross tolerance with GABAA receptor positive allosteric modulators, such as the benzodiazepines and the nonbenzodiazepine drugs. For this reason, alcoholics or recovering alcoholics may be at increased risk of physical dependency or abuse of zolpidem. It is not typically prescribed in people with a history of alcoholism, recreational drug use, physical dependency, or psychological dependency on sedative-hypnotic drugs. A 2014 review found evidence of drug-seeking behaviour, with prescriptions for zolpidem making up 20% of falsified or forged prescriptions.

Rodent studies of the tolerance-inducing properties have shown that zolpidem has less tolerance-producing potential than benzodiazepines, but in primates, the tolerance-producing potential of zolpidem was the same as seen with benzodiazepines.

Overdose

Overdose can lead to coma or death. When overdose occurs, there are often other drugs in the person’s system.

Zolpidem overdose can be treated with the GABAA receptor antagonist flumazenil, which displaces zolpidem from its binding site on the GABAA receptor to rapidly reverse the effects of the zolpidem. It is unknown if dialysis is helpful.

Detection in Body Fluids

Zolpidem may be quantitated in blood or plasma to confirm a diagnosis of poisoning in people who are hospitalized, to provide evidence in an impaired driving arrest, or to assist in a medicolegal death investigation. Blood or plasma zolpidem concentrations are usually in a range of 30-300 μg/l in persons receiving the drug therapeutically, 100-700 μg/l in those arrested for impaired driving, and 1000-7000 μg/l in victims of acute overdosage. Analytical techniques, in general, involve gas or liquid chromatography.

Pharmacology

Mechanism of Action

Zolpidem is a ligand of high-affinity positive modulator sites of GABAA receptors, which enhances GABAergic inhibition of neurotransmission in the central nervous system. It selectively binds to α1 subunits of this pentameric ion channel. Accordingly, it has strong hypnotic properties and weak anxiolytic, myorelaxant, and anticonvulsant properties. Opposed to diazepam, zolpidem is able to bind to binary αβ GABA receptors, where it was shown to bind to the α1–α1 subunit interface. Zolpidem has about 10-fold lower affinity for the α2- and α3- subunits than for α1, and no appreciable affinity for α5 subunit-containing receptors. ω1 type GABAA receptors are the α1-containing GABAA receptors and are found primarily in the brain, the ω2 receptors are those that contain the α2-, α3-, α4-, α5-, or α6 subunits, and are found primarily in the spine. Thus, zolpidem favours binding to GABAA receptors located in the brain rather the spine. Zolpidem has no affinity for γ1 and γ3 subunit-containing receptors and, like the vast majority of benzodiazepine-like drugs, it lacks affinity for receptors containing α4 and α6. Zolpidem modulates the receptor presumably by inducing a receptor conformation that enables an increased binding strength of the orthosteric agonist GABA towards its cognate receptor without affecting desensitization or peak currents.

Like zaleplon, zolpidem may increase slow wave sleep but cause no effect on stage 2 sleep. A meta-analysis that compared benzodiazepines against nonbenzodiazepines has shown few consistent differences between zolpidem and benzodiazepines in terms of sleep onset latency, total sleep duration, number of awakenings, quality of sleep, adverse events, tolerance, rebound insomnia, and daytime alertness.

Interactions

People should not consume alcohol while taking zolpidem, and should not be prescribed opioid drugs nor take such illicit drugs recreationally. Opioids can also increase the risk of becoming psychologically dependent on zolpidem. Use of opioids with zolpidem increases the risk of respiratory depression and death. the FDA is advising that the opioid addiction medications buprenorphine and methadone should not be withheld from patients taking benzodiazepines or other drugs that depress the central nervous system (CNS).

Next day sedation can be worsened if people take zolpidem while they are also taking antipsychotics, other sedatives, anxiolytics, antidepressant agents, antiepileptic drugs, and antihistamines. Some people taking antidepressants have had visual hallucinations when they also took zolpidem.

Cytochrome P450 inhibitors, particularly CYP3A4 and CYP1A2 inhibitors, fluvoxamine and ciprofloxacin will increase the effects of a given dose of zolpidem.

Cytochrome P450 activators like St. John’s Wort may decrease the activity of zolpidem.

Chemistry

Three syntheses of zolpidem are common. 4-methylacetophenone is used as a common precursor. This is brominated and reacted with 2-amino-5-methylpyridine to give the imidazopyridine. From here the reactions use a variety of reagents to complete the synthesis, either involving thionyl chloride or sodium cyanide. These reagents are challenging to handle and require thorough safety assessments. Though such safety procedures are common in industry, they make clandestine manufacture difficult.

A number of major side-products of the sodium cyanide reaction have been characterised and include dimers and mannich products.

Society and Culture

Prescriptions in the US for all sleeping pills (including zolpidem) steadily declined from around 57 million tablets in 2013, to around 47 million in 2017, possibly in relation to concern about prescribing addictive drugs in the midst of the opioid crisis.

Military Use

The United States Air Force uses zolpidem as one of the hypnotics approved as a “no-go pill” (with a six-hour restriction on subsequent flight operation) to help aviators and special duty personnel sleep in support of mission readiness. (The other hypnotics used are temazepam and zaleplon.) “Ground tests” are required prior to authorization issued to use the medication in an operational situation.

Recreational Use

Zolpidem has potential for either medical misuse when the drug is continued long term without or against medical advice, or for recreational use when the drug is taken to achieve a “high”. The transition from medical use of zolpidem to high-dose addiction or drug dependence can occur with use, but some believe it may be more likely when used without a doctor’s recommendation to continue using it, when physiological drug tolerance leads to higher doses than the usual 5 mg or 10 mg, when consumed through inhalation or injection, or when taken for purposes other than as a sleep aid. Recreational use is more prevalent in those having been dependent on other drugs in the past, but tolerance and drug dependence can still sometimes occur in those without a history of drug dependence. Chronic users of high doses are more likely to develop physical dependence on the drug, which may cause severe withdrawal symptoms, including seizures, if abrupt withdrawal from zolpidem occurs.

Other drugs, including the benzodiazepines and zopiclone, are also found in high numbers of suspected drugged drivers. Many drivers have blood levels far exceeding the therapeutic dose range, suggesting a high degree of excessive-use potential for benzodiazepines, zolpidem and zopiclone. US Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy says that he was using zolpidem (Ambien) and promethazine (Phenergan) when caught driving erratically at 3 a.m. “I simply do not remember getting out of bed, being pulled over by the police, or being cited for three driving infractions,” Kennedy said.

Nonmedical use of zolpidem is increasingly common in the US, Canada, and the UK. Some users have reported decreased anxiety, mild euphoria, perceptual changes, visual distortions, and hallucinations. Zolpidem was used by Australian Olympic swimmers at the London Olympics in 2012, leading to controversy.

Regulation

For the stated reason of its potential for recreational use and dependence, zolpidem (along with the other benzodiazepine-like Z-drugs) is a Schedule IV substance under the Controlled Substances Act in the US. The United States patent for zolpidem was held by the French pharmaceutical corporation Sanofi-Aventis.

Use in Crime

The Z-drugs including zolpidem have been used as date rape drugs. Zolpidem is available legally by prescription, and broadly prescribed unlike other date rape drugs: gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), which is used to treat a rare form of narcolepsy, or flunitrazepam (Rohypnol), which is only prescribed as a second-line choice for insomnia. Zolpidem can typically be detected in bodily fluids for 36 hours, though it may be possible to detect it by hair testing much later, which is due to the short elimination half-life of 2.5-3 hours. This use of the drug was highlighted during proceedings against Darren Sharper, who was accused of using the tablets he was prescribed to facilitate a series of rapes.

Sleepwalking

Zolpidem received widespread media coverage in Australia after the death of a student who fell 20 metres (66 ft) from the Sydney Harbour Bridge while under the influence of zolpidem.

Brands

As of September 2018, zolpidem was marketed under many brands: Adorma, Albapax, Ambien, Atrimon, Belbien, Bikalm, Cymerion, Dactive, Dalparan, Damixan, Dormeben, Dormilam, Dormilan, Dormizol, Eanox, Edluar, Flazinil, Fulsadem, Hypnogen, Hypnonorm, Intermezzo, Inzofresh, Ivadal, Ivedal, Le Tan, Lioram, Lunata, Medploz, Mondeal, Myslee, Nasen, Niterest, Nocte, Nottem, Noxidem, Noxizol, Nuo Bin, Nytamel, Nyxe, Olpitric, Onirex, Opsycon, Patz, Polsen, Sanval, Semi-Nax, Sleepman, Somex, Somidem, Somit, Somnil, Somnipax, Somnipron, Somno, Somnogen, Somnor, Sonirem, Sove, Soza, Stilnoct, Stilnox, Stilpidem, Stimin, Sublinox, Sucedal, Sumenan, Vicknox, Viradex, Xentic, Zasan, Zaviana, Ziohex, Zipsoon, Zodem, Zodenox, Zodium, Zodorm, Zolcent, Zoldem, Zoldorm, Zoldox, Zolep, Zolfresh, Zolip, Zolman, Zolmia, Zolnox, Zolnoxs, Zolodorm, Zolnyt, Zolpeduar, Zolpel, Zolpi, Zolpi-Q, Zolpic, Zolpidem, Zolpidem tartrate, Zolpidemi tartras, Zolpidemtartraat, Zolpidemtartrat, Zolpidemum, Zolpigen, Zolpihexal, Zolpimist, Zolpineo, Zolpinox, Zolpirest, Zolpistar, Zolpitop, Zolpitrac, Zolpium, Zolprem, Zolsana, Zolta, Zoltar, Zolway, Zomnia, Zonadin, Zonoct, Zopid, Zopidem, Zopim, and Zorimin.

Research

While cases of zolpidem improving aphasia in people with stroke have been described, use for this purpose has unclear benefit. Zolpidem has also been studied in persistent vegetative states with unclear effect. A 2017 systematic review concluded that while there is preliminary evidence of benefit for treating disorders of movement and consciousness other than insomnia (including Parkinson’s disease), more research is needed. More recent research has found zolpidem treatment to be effective in the short term, but only in a small proportion of cases (estimated at around 5%) and only when the brain injury is of a specific type. Tolerance to the beneficial effects also develops rapidly, and so for these reasons while zolpidem may sometimes be used as a “last resort” treatment, it has numerous disadvantages and research continues into novel treatments that might provide the same kind of benefits in a larger proportion of patients, and with a more sustained benefit.

Animal studies in FDA files for zolpidem showed a dose dependent increase in some types of tumours, although the studies were too small to reach statistical significance. Some observational epidemiological studies have found a correlation between use of benzodiazepines and certain hypnotics including zolpidem and an increased risk of getting cancer, but others have found no correlation; a 2017 meta-analysis of such studies found a correlation, stating that use of hypnotics was associated with a 29% increased risk of cancer, and that “zolpidem use showed the strongest risk of cancer” with an estimated 34% increased risk, but noted that the results were tentative because some of the studies failed to control for confounders like cigarette smoking and alcohol use, and some of the studies analysed were case-controls, which are more prone to some forms of bias. Similarly, a meta-analysis of benzodiazepine drugs also shows their use is associated with increased risk of cancer.

What is Zopiclone?

Introduction

Zopiclone, sold under the brand name Imovane among others, is a nonbenzodiazepine used to treat difficulty sleeping.

Zopiclone is molecularly distinct from benzodiazepine drugs and is classed as a cyclopyrrolone. However, zopiclone increases the normal transmission of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the central nervous system, via modulating benzodiazepine receptors in the same way that benzodiazepine drugs do.

Zopiclone is a sedative. It works by causing a depression or tranquilisation of the central nervous system. After prolonged use, the body can become accustomed to the effects of zopiclone. When the dose is then reduced or the drug is abruptly stopped, withdrawal symptoms may result. These can include a range of symptoms similar to those of benzodiazepine withdrawal. Although withdrawal symptoms from therapeutic doses of zopiclone and its isomers (i.e. eszopiclone) do not typically present with convulsions and are therefore not considered life-threatening, patients may experience such significant agitation or anxiety that they seek emergency medical attention.

In the United States, zopiclone is not commercially available, although its active stereoisomer, eszopiclone is. Zopiclone is a controlled substance in the United States, Japan, Brazil, and some European countries, and may be illegal to possess without a prescription. However, it is readily available in other countries and is not a controlled substance.

Zopiclone is known colloquially as a “Z-drug”. Other Z-drugs include zaleplon and zolpidem and were initially thought to be less addictive than benzodiazepines. However, this appraisal has shifted somewhat in the last few years as cases of addiction and habituation have been presented. Zopiclone is recommended to be taken on a short-term basis, usually no more than a week or two. Daily or continuous use of the drug is not usually advised, and caution must be taken when the compound is used in conjunction with antidepressants, sedatives or other drugs affecting the central nervous system.

Brief History

Zopiclone was developed and first introduced in 1986 by Rhône-Poulenc S.A., now part of Sanofi-Aventis, the main worldwide manufacturer. Initially, it was promoted as an improvement on benzodiazepines, but a recent meta-analysis found it was no better than benzodiazepines in any of the aspects assessed. On 04 April 2005, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) listed zopiclone under schedule IV, due to evidence that the drug has addictive properties similar to benzodiazepines.

Zopiclone, as traditionally sold worldwide, is a racemic mixture of two stereoisomers, only one of which is active. In 2005, the pharmaceutical company Sepracor of Marlborough, Massachusetts began marketing the active stereoisomer eszopiclone under the name Lunesta in the United States. This had the consequence of placing what is a generic drug in most of the world under patent control in the United States. Generic forms of Lunesta have since become available in the United States. Zopiclone is currently available off-patent in a number of European countries, as well as Brazil, Canada, and Hong Kong. The eszopiclone/zopiclone difference is in the dosage – the strongest eszopiclone dosage contains 3 mg of the therapeutic stereoisomer, whereas the highest zopiclone dosage (10 mg) contains 5 mg of the active stereoisomer. The two agents have not yet been studied in head-to-head clinical trials to determine the existence of any potential clinical differences (efficacy, side effects, developing dependence on the drug, safety, etc.).

Medical Uses

Zopiclone is used for the short-term treatment of insomnia where sleep initiation or sleep maintenance are prominent symptoms. Long-term use is not recommended, as tolerance, dependence, and addiction can occur. One low-quality study found that zopiclone is ineffective in improving sleep quality or increasing sleep time in shift workers – more research in this area has been recommended.

Specific Populations

Elderly

Zopiclone, similar to other benzodiazepines and nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic drugs, causes impairments in body balance and standing steadiness in individuals who wake up at night or the next morning. Falls and hip fractures are frequently reported. The combination with alcohol consumption increases these impairments. Partial, but incomplete tolerance develops to these impairments. Zopiclone increases postural sway and increases the number of falls in older people, as well as cognitive side effects. Falls are a significant cause of death in older people.

An extensive review of the medical literature regarding the management of insomnia and the elderly found that considerable evidence of the effectiveness and lasting benefits of nondrug treatments for insomnia exist. Compared with the benzodiazepines, the nonbenzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics, such as zopiclone, offer few if any advantages in efficacy or tolerability in elderly persons. Newer agents such as the melatonin receptor agonists may be more suitable and effective for the management of chronic insomnia in elderly people. Long-term use of sedative-hypnotics for insomnia lacks an evidence base and is discouraged for reasons that include concerns about such potential adverse drug effects as cognitive impairment (anterograde amnesia), daytime sedation, motor incoordination, and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents and falls. In addition, the effectiveness and safety of long-term use of nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic drugs remains to be determined.

Liver Disease

Patients with liver disease eliminate zopiclone much more slowly than normal patients and in addition experience exaggerated pharmacological effects of the drug.

Adverse Reactions

Sleeping pills, including zopiclone, have been associated with an increased risk of death. The British National Formulary states adverse reactions as follows: “taste disturbance (some report a metallic like taste); less commonly nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, headache; rarely amnesia, confusion, depression, hallucinations, nightmares; very rarely light headedness, incoordination, paradoxical effects […] and sleep-walking also reported”.

Contraindications

Zopiclone causes impaired driving skills similar to those of benzodiazepines. Long-term users of hypnotic drugs for sleep disorders develop only partial tolerance to adverse effects on driving with users of hypnotic drugs even after 1 year of use still showing an increased motor vehicle accident rate. Patients who drive motor vehicles should not take zopiclone unless they stop driving due to a significant increased risk of accidents in zopiclone users. Zopiclone induces impairment of psychomotor function. Driving or operating machinery should be avoided after taking zopiclone as effects can carry over to the next day, including impaired hand eye coordination.

EEG and Sleep

It causes similar alterations on EEG readings and sleep architecture as benzodiazepines and causes disturbances in sleep architecture on withdrawal as part of its rebound effect. Zopiclone reduces both delta waves and the number of high-amplitude delta waves whilst increasing low-amplitude waves. Zopiclone reduces the total amount of time spent in REM sleep as well as delaying its onset. Cognitive behavioural therapy has been found to be superior to zopiclone in the treatment of insomnia and has been found to have lasting effects on sleep quality for at least a year after therapy.

Overdose

Zopiclone is sometimes used as a method of suicide. It has a similar fatality index to that of benzodiazepine drugs, apart from temazepam, which is particularly toxic in overdose. Deaths have occurred from zopiclone overdose, alone or in combination with other drugs. Overdose of zopiclone may present with excessive sedation and depressed respiratory function that may progress to coma and possibly death. Zopiclone combined with alcohol, opiates, or other central nervous system depressants may be even more likely to lead to fatal overdoses. Zopiclone overdosage can be treated with the benzodiazepine receptor antagonist flumazenil, which displaces zopiclone from its binding site on the benzodiazepine receptor, thereby rapidly reversing its effects. Serious effects on the heart may also occur from a zopiclone overdose when combined with piperazine.

Death certificates show the number of zopiclone-related deaths is on the rise. When taken alone, it usually is not fatal, but when mixed with alcohol or other drugs such as opioids, or in patients with respiratory, or hepatic disorders, the risk of a serious and fatal overdose increases.

Interactions

Zopiclone also interacts with trimipramine and caffeine.

Alcohol has an additive effect when combined with zopiclone, enhancing the adverse effects including the overdose potential of zopiclone significantly. Due to these risks and the increased risk for dependence, alcohol should be avoided when using zopiclone.

Erythromycin appears to increase the absorption rate of zopiclone and prolong its elimination half-life, leading to increased plasma levels and more pronounced effects. Itraconazole has a similar effect on zopiclone pharmacokinetics as erythromycin. The elderly may be particularly sensitive to the erythromycin and itraconazole drug interaction with zopiclone. Temporary dosage reduction during combined therapy may be required, especially in the elderly. Rifampicin causes a very notable reduction in half-life of zopiclone and peak plasma levels, which results in a large reduction in the hypnotic effect of zopiclone. Phenytoin and carbamazepine may also provoke similar interactions. Ketoconazole and sulfaphenazole interfere with the metabolism of zopiclone. Nefazodone impairs the metabolism of zopiclone leading to increased zopiclone levels and marked next-day sedation.

Pharmacology

The therapeutic pharmacological properties of zopiclone include hypnotic, anxiolytic, anticonvulsant, and myorelaxant properties. Zopiclone and benzodiazepines bind to the same sites on GABAA-containing receptors, causing an enhancement of the actions of GABA to produce the therapeutic and adverse effects of zopiclone. The metabolite of zopiclone called desmethylzopiclone is also pharmacologically active, although it has predominately anxiolytic properties. One study found some slight selectivity for zopiclone on α1 and α5 subunits, although it is regarded as being unselective in its binding to α1, α2, α3, and α5 GABAA benzodiazepine receptor complexes. Desmethylzopiclone has been found to have partial agonist properties, unlike the parent drug zopiclone, which is a full agonist. The mechanism of action of zopiclone is similar to benzodiazepines, with similar effects on locomotor activity and on dopamine and serotonin turnover. A meta-analysis of randomised controlled clinical trials that compared benzodiazepines to zopiclone or other Z drugs such as zolpidem and zaleplon has found few clear and consistent differences between zopiclone and the benzodiazepines in sleep onset latency, total sleep duration, number of awakenings, quality of sleep, adverse events, tolerance, rebound insomnia, and daytime alertness. Zopiclone is in the cyclopyrrolone family of drugs. Other cyclopyrrolone drugs include suriclone. Zopiclone, although molecularly different from benzodiazepines, shares an almost identical pharmacological profile as benzodiazepines, including anxiolytic properties. Its mechanism of action is by binding to the benzodiazepine site and acting as a full agonist, which in turn positively modulates benzodiazepine-sensitive GABAA receptors and enhances GABA binding at the GABAA receptors to produce zopiclone’s pharmacological properties. In addition to zopiclone’s benzodiazepine pharmacological properties, it also has some barbiturate-like properties.

In EEG studies, zopiclone significantly increases the energy of the beta frequency band and shows characteristics of high-voltage slow waves, desynchronisation of hippocampal theta waves, and an increase in the energy of the delta frequency band. Zopiclone increases both stage 2 and slow-wave sleep (SWS), while zolpidem, an α1-selective compound, increases only SWS and causes no effect on stage 2 sleep. Zopiclone is less selective to the α1 site and has higher affinity to the α2 site than zaleplon. Zopiclone is therefore very similar pharmacologically to benzodiazepines.

Pharmacokinetics

After oral administration, zopiclone is rapidly absorbed, with a bioavailability around 75-80%. Time to peak plasma concentration is 1-2 hours. A high-fat meal preceding zopiclone administration does not change absorption (as measured by AUC), but reduces peak plasma levels and delays its occurrence, thus may delay the onset of therapeutic effects.

The plasma protein-binding of zopiclone has been reported to be weak, between 45 and 80% (mean 52-59%). It is rapidly and widely distributed to body tissues, including the brain, and is excreted in urine, saliva, and breast milk. Zopiclone is partly extensively metabolised in the liver to form an active N-demethylated derivative (N-desmethylzopiclone) and an inactive zopiclone-N-oxide. Hepatic enzymes playing the most significant role in zopiclone metabolism are CYP3A4 and CYP2E1. In addition, about 50% of the administered dose is decarboxylated and excreted via the lungs. In urine, the N-demethyl and N-oxide metabolites account for 30% of the initial dose. Between 7 and 10% of zopiclone is recovered from the urine, indicating extensive metabolism of the drug before excretion. The terminal elimination half-life of zopiclone ranges from 3.5 to 6.5 hours (5 hours on average).

The pharmacokinetics of zopiclone in humans are stereoselective. After oral administration of the racemic mixture, Cmax (time to maximum plasma concentration), area under the plasma time-concentration curve (AUC) and terminal elimination half-life values are higher for the dextrorotatory enantiomers, owing to the slower total clearance and smaller volume of distribution (corrected by the bioavailability), compared with the levorotatory enantiomer. In urine, the concentrations of the dextrorotatory enantiomers of the N-demethyl and N-oxide metabolites are higher than those of the respective antipodes.

The pharmacokinetics of zopiclone are altered by aging and are influenced by renal and hepatic functions. In severe chronic kidney failure, the area under the curve value for zopiclone was larger and the half-life associated with the elimination rate constant longer, but these changes were not considered to be clinically significant. Sex and race have not been found to interact with pharmacokinetics of zopiclone.

Chemistry

The melting point of zopiclone is 178 °C. Zopiclone’s solubility in water, at room temperature (25 °C) are 0.151 mg/mL. The logP value of zopiclone is 0.8.

Detection in Biological Fluids

Zopiclone may be measured in blood, plasma, or urine by chromatographic methods. Plasma concentrations are typically less than 100 μg/l during therapeutic use, but frequently exceed 100 μg/l in automotive vehicle operators arrested for impaired driving ability and may exceed 1000 μg/l in acutely poisoned patients. Post mortem blood concentrations are usually in a range of 0.4-3.9 mg/l in victims of fatal acute overdose.

Society and Culture

Recreational Use

Zopiclone has the potential for non-medical use, dosage escalation, and drug dependence. It is taken orally and sometimes intravenously when used non-medically, and often combined with alcohol to achieve a combined sedative hypnotic – alcohol euphoria. Patients abusing the drug are also at risk of dependence. Withdrawal symptoms can be seen after long-term use of normal doses even after a gradual reduction regimen. The Compendium of Pharmaceuticals and Specialties recommends zopiclone prescriptions not exceed 7 to 10 days, owing to concerns of addiction, tolerance, and physical dependence. Two types of drug misuse can occur: either recreational misuse, wherein the drug is taken to achieve a high, or when the drug is continued long-term against medical advice. Zopiclone may be more addictive than benzodiazepines. Those with a history of substance misuse or mental health disorders may be at an increased risk of high-dose zopiclone misuse. High dose misuse of zopiclone and increasing popularity amongst people who use substances who have been prescribed with zopiclone. The symptoms of zopiclone addiction can include depression, dysphoria, hopelessness, slow thoughts, social isolation, worrying, sexual anhedonia, and nervousness.

Zopiclone and other sedative hypnotic drugs are detected frequently in cases of people suspected of driving under the influence of drugs. Other drugs, including the benzodiazepines and zolpidem, are also found in high numbers of suspected drugged drivers. Many drivers have blood levels far exceeding the therapeutic dose range and often in combination with other alcohol, illegal, or addictive prescription drugs, suggesting a high degree of potential for non-medical use of benzodiazepines, zolpidem, and zopiclone. Zopiclone, which at prescribed doses causes moderate impairment the next day, has been estimated to increase the risk of vehicle accidents by 50%, causing an increase of 503 excess accidents per 100,000 persons. Zaleplon or other non-impairing sleep aids were recommended be used instead of zopiclone to reduce traffic accidents. Zopiclone, as with other hypnotic drugs, is sometimes used to carry out criminal acts such as sexual assaults.

Zopiclone has cross-tolerance with barbiturates and is able to suppress barbiturate withdrawal signs. It is frequently self-administered intravenously in studies on monkeys, suggesting a high risk of addictive potential.

Zopiclone is in the top ten medications obtained using a false prescription in France.

What is Zaleplon?

Introduction

Zaleplon, sold under the brand names Sonata among others, is a sedative-hypnotic, used to treat insomnia. It is a nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic from the pyrazolopyrimidine class.

It is manufactured by King Pharmaceuticals and Gedeon Richter Plc. It has been discontinued in Canada but can be manufactured if a prescription is brought to a compounding pharmacy. It was prescribed rarely in the United Kingdom, with zopiclone being the preferred Z-drug by the National Health Service (NHS) and is now unavailable.

Medical Uses

Zaleplon is slightly effective in insomnia, primarily characterised by difficulty falling asleep. Zaleplon significantly reduces the time required to fall asleep by improving sleep latency and may therefore facilitate sleep induction rather than sleep maintenance. Due to its ultrashort elimination half-life, zaleplon may not be effective in reducing premature awakenings; however, it may be administered to alleviate middle-of-the-night awakenings. However, zaleplon has not been empirically shown to increase total sleep time.

It may result in an impaired ability to drive the next day, though it has proven promising when compared to other sedative/hypnotics and next-day residual sedation. It may have advantages over benzodiazepines with fewer adverse effects.

Neither zaleplon, nor any nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic class medication should be combined with alcohol, as both modulate GABAA receptor sites, and in a synergistic manner increase the chances of fatal respiratory depression and asphyxiation from vomiting.

Special Populations

Zaleplon is not recommended for chronic use in the elderly. The elderly are more sensitive to the adverse effects of zaleplon such as cognitive side effects. Zaleplon may increase the risk of injury among the elderly. It should not be used while in pregnancy or lactation, and in patients with a history of alcohol or drug abuse, psychotic illness or depression, clinicians should devote more attention.

When compared with benzodiazepines, nonbenzodiazepines (including zaleplon) offer few significant advantages in efficacy and tolerability among elderly individuals. Long-term use of sedative/hypnotics for insomnia has traditionally been discouraged for reasons that include concerns about addiction and rebound insomnia, as well to the risk of side effects associated to GABAA agonists, such as cognitive impairment, anterograde amnesia, daytime sedation, musculoskeletal impairment, and subsequently an increased risk of harm to oneself (e.g. falling) and to others (e.g. automotive accidents). Though, quite obviously as the body and brain age, these aforementioned phenomena are expected events, as they occur daily regardless of ingestion of a sedative/hypnotic. Thus, statistically significant and empirical evidence are arguably still absent as dramatic precautions and conclusions are drawn irrespective of the debilitating realities that accompany insomnia and the fact that these medicines do indeed provide assistance to millions of elderly individuals. It is important to distinguish between the extrapolation of potential side effects relative to the vast number of examples, wherein the sedative/hypnotic has proven therapeutically beneficial and appropriate.

In addition, some contend the efficacy and safety of long-term use of these agents remains to be enumerated, but nothing concrete suggests long-term use poses any direct harm to a person. Still, as of today neither benzodiazepines nor nonbenzodiazepines are recommended for the long-term treatment of insomnia.

Adverse Effects

The adverse effects of zaleplon are similar to the adverse effects of benzodiazepines, although with less next-day sedation, and in two studies zaleplon use was found not to cause an increase in traffic accidents, as compared to other hypnotics currently on the market.

Sleeping pills, including zaleplon, have been associated with an increased risk of death.

Available data cannot provide a reliable estimate of the incidence of dependence during treatment at recommended doses of zaleplon (typically 5-20 mg before bed). Other sedative/hypnotics have been associated with various signs and symptoms of a withdrawal syndrome, following abrupt discontinuation, ranging from mild dysphoria and insomnia to more serious cases that include abdominal and muscle cramps, vomiting, sweating, tremors, and convulsions. Following abrupt cessation, the seizure threshold is further lowered, wherein coma and death are possible outcomes if untreated.

Some evidence suggests zaleplon is not as chemically reinforcing and exhibits far fewer rebound effects when compared with other nonbenzodiazepines, or Z-drugs.

Interactions

Cimetidine, rifampicin, and thioridazine cause interactions with zaleplon.

Cimetidine and grapefruit are known to increase blood plasma concentrations of benzodiazepines metabolized by the P450 CYP3A4 liver enzyme (e.g. alprazolam) by extending the time by which the drug leaves the body, effectively extending the half-life and enhancing effects to potentially toxic levels. Thus, given the similarities between zaleplon and benzodiazepines, particularly in effect, and not just chemical structure, it is reasonable to take precautions (e.g. inquire at a pharmacy) before one consumes cimetidine (or grapefruit) while also taking zaleplon.

Pharmacology

Mechanism of Action

Zaleplon is a high-affinity ligand of positive modulator sites of GABAA receptors, which enhances GABAergic inhibition of neurotransmission in the central nervous system. The ultrashort half-life gives zaleplon a unique advantage over other hypnotics because of its lack of next-day residual effects on driving and other performance-related skills. Unlike nonselective benzodiazepine drugs and zopiclone, which distort the sleep pattern, zaleplon appears to induce sleep without disrupting the natural sleep architecture.

A meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials which compared benzodiazepines against zaleplon or other Z-drugs such as zolpidem, zopiclone, and eszopiclone has found few clear and consistent differences between zaleplon and the benzodiazepines in terms of sleep onset latency, total sleep duration, number of awakenings, quality of sleep, adverse events, tolerance, rebound insomnia, and daytime alertness.

Zaleplon has a pharmacological profile similar to benzodiazepines, characterized by an increase in slow wave deep sleep (SWDS) with rapid onset of hypnotic action. Zaleplon is a full agonist for the benzodiazepine α1 receptor located on the GABAA receptor complex in the body, with lower affinity for the α2 and α3 subsites. It selectively enhances the action of GABA similar to, but more selectively than benzodiazepines. Zaleplon, although not a benzodiazepine, maintains a very similar pharmacological profile nonetheless, known for inducing hypnotic effects by α1 subreceptor sites, anxiolytic and muscle relaxant effects via α2 and α3 subsites, with negligible anticonvulsant properties (via α5 subsite), as zaleplon action is modulated at benzodiazepine receptor sites. The elimination half-life of zaleplon is about 1-1.5 hours. The absorption rate of zaleplon is rapid and the onset of therapeutic effects is typically breached within 5-15 minutes following ingestion.

Zaleplon should be understood as an ultrashort-acting sedative-hypnotic drug for the treatment of insomnia. Zaleplon increases EEG power density in the δ-frequency band and a decrease in the energy of the θ-frequency band.

Pharmacokinetics

Zaleplon is primarily metabolised by aldehyde oxidase, and its half-life can be affected by substances which inhibit or induce aldehyde oxidase. Taken orally, zaleplon reaches full concentration in about one hour. It is extensively metabolised into 5-oxozaleplon and 5-oxodesethylzaleplon (the latter via desethylzaleplon), with less than 1% of it excreted intact in urine.

Chemistry

Pure zaleplon in its solid state is a white to off-white powder with very low solubility in water, as well as low solubility in ethanol and propylene glycol. It has a constant octanol-water partition coefficient of log P = 1.23 in the pH range between 1 and 7.

It is classified as a pyrazolopyrimidine.

Society and Culture

Recreational Use

Zaleplon has the potential to be a drug of recreational use, and has been found to have an addictive potential similar to benzodiazepine and benzodiazepine-like hypnotics. The mind- and judgement-altering effects of zaleplon are similar to those of many benzodiazepines, but the fast-acting nature and short half-life of the chemical mean high doses set on much more quickly and last for short periods of time (usually from 45 to 60 minutes).

Some individuals use a different delivery method than prescribed, such as insufflation, to induce effects faster.

A common effect of recreational zaleplon use is the occurrence of (typically short-lived) hallucinations. Fewer visual and auditory hallucinations/disruptions occur with the use of zaleplon than with other Z-drugs, like zolpidem.[citation needed] Anterograde amnesia can occur and can cause one to lose track of the amount of zaleplon already ingested, prompting the ingesting of more than originally planned. However, continuous ingestion is extremely unlikely precisely because of zaleplon’s quick onset of action.

The combination of alcohol and zaleplon can result in fatal respiratory depression and asphyxiation from vomiting.

Aviation Use

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows zaleplon with a 12-hour wait period and no more than twice a week, which makes it the sleep medication with the shortest allowed waiting period after use. The substances with the 2nd shortest period, which is of 24 hours, are zolpidem and ramelteon.

Military Use

The United States Air Force uses zaleplon as one of the hypnotics approved as a “no-go pill” to help aviators and special-duty personnel sleep in support of mission readiness (with a four-hour restriction on subsequent flight operation). “Ground tests” are required prior to authorisation being issued to use the medication in an operational situation. The other hypnotics used as “no-go pills” are temazepam and zolpidem, which both have longer mandatory recovery periods.

What is a Nonbenzodiazepine?

Introduction

Nonbenzodiazepines, sometimes referred to colloquially as Z-drugs (as many of them begin with the letter “z”), are a class of psychoactive drugs that are very benzodiazepine-like in nature.

They are used in the treatment of sleep problems.

Nonbenzodiazepine pharmacodynamics are almost entirely the same as benzodiazepine drugs and therefore exhibit similar benefits, side-effects, and risks. However, nonbenzodiazepines have dissimilar or entirely different chemical structures and are therefore unrelated to benzodiazepines on a molecular level.

Brief History

Z-drugs emerged in the last years of the 1980s and early 1990s, with zopiclone (Imovane) approved by the British National Health Service (NHS) as early as 1989, quickly followed by Sanofi with zolpidem (Ambien). By 1999, King Pharmaceuticals had finalised approval with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market zaleplon (Sonata, Starnoc) across the US. In 2005, the FDA approved eszopiclone (Lunesta) the (S)-enantiomer of zopiclone. That same year, 2005, the FDA finalised approval for Ambien CR, or extended-release zolpidem. Most recently, in 2012 the FDA approved Intermezzo (zolpidem tartate sublingual), which is marketed for middle-of-the-night insomnia, available in doses only half of the strength of immediate-release zolpidem tartrate to avoid residual next-day sedation.

Classes

Currently, the major chemical classes of nonbenzodiazepines are:

  • Imidazopyridines:
    • Alpidem.
    • Necopidem.
    • Saripidem.
    • Zolpidem (Ambien, Ambien CR, Intermezzo, Zolpimist, Edluar, Ivadal, Sanval, Stilnox, etc.).
  • Pyrazolopyrimidines:
    • Divaplon.
    • Fasiplon.
    • Indiplon.
    • Lorediplon.
    • Ocinaplon.
    • Panadiplon.
    • Taniplon.
    • Zaleplon (Sonata, Starnoc, Andante).
  • Cyclopyrrolones:
    • Eszopiclone (Lunesta, Valnoc, etc.).
    • Pagoclone.
    • Pazinaclone.
    • Suproclone.
    • Suriclone.
    • Zopiclone (Imovane, Zimovane, Somnol, etc.).
  • β-Carbolines:
    • Abecarnil.
    • Gedocarnil.
    • SL-651,498.
    • ZK-93423.
  • Others:
    • CGS-20625.
    • CGS-9896.
    • CL-218,872.
    • ELB-139.
    • GBLD-345.
    • HIE-124.
    • L-838,417.
    • NS-2664.
    • NS-2710.
    • Pipequaline.
    • RWJ-51204.
    • SB-205,384.
    • SL-651,498.
    • SX-3228.
    • TP-003.
    • TP-13.
    • TPA-023.
    • Y-23684.

Pharmacology

The nonbenzodiazepines are positive allosteric modulators of the GABA-A receptor. Like the benzodiazepines, they exert their effects by binding to and activating the benzodiazepine site of the receptor complex. Many of these compounds are subtype selective providing novel anxiolytics with little to no hypnotic and amnesiac effects and novel hypnotics with little or no anxiolytic effects.

Background

Nonbenzodiazepines have demonstrated efficacy in treating sleep disorders. There is some limited evidence that suggests that tolerance to nonbenzodiazepines is slower to develop than with benzodiazepines. However, data is limited so no conclusions can be drawn. Data is also limited into the long-term effects of nonbenzodiazepines. Further research into the safety of nonbenzodiazepines and long-term effectiveness of nonbenzodiazepines has been recommended in a review of the literature. Some differences exist between the Z-drugs, for example tolerance and rebound effects may not occur with zaleplon.

Pharmaceuticals

The first three nonbenzodiazepine drugs to enter the market were the “Z-drugs”, zopiclone, zolpidem and zaleplon. These three drugs are all sedatives used exclusively for the treatment of mild insomnia. They are safer than the older barbiturates especially in overdosage and they may, when compared to the benzodiazepines, have less of a tendency to induce physical dependence and addiction, although these issues can still become a problem. This has led to the Z-drugs becoming widely prescribed for the treatment of insomnia particularly in elderly patients. A little under a third (31%) of all Americans over 65 years of age are taking Z-drugs.

Long-term use is not recommended as tolerance and addiction can occur. A survey of patients using nonbenzodiazepine Z drugs and benzodiazepine hypnotic users found that there was no difference in reports of adverse effects that were reported in over 41% of users and, in fact, Z drug users were more likely to report that they had tried to quit their hypnotic drug and were more likely to want to stop taking Z drugs than benzodiazepine users. Efficacy also did not differ between benzodiazepine and Z drug users.

Side Effects

The Z-drugs are not without disadvantages, and all three compounds are notable for producing side-effects such as pronounced amnesia and more rarely hallucinations, especially when used in large doses. On rare occasions, these drugs can produce a fugue state, wherein the patient sleepwalks and may perform relatively complex actions, including cooking meals or driving cars, while effectively unconscious and with no recollection of the events upon awakening. While this effect is rare (and has also been reported to occur with some of the older sedative drugs such as temazepam and secobarbital), it can be potentially hazardous, and so further development of this class of drugs has continued in an effort to find new compounds with further improved profiles.

Daytime withdrawal-related anxiety can also occur from chronic nightly nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic usage such as with zopiclone.

Side-effects can differ within the drug class due to differences in metabolism and pharmacology. For example, long-acting benzodiazepines have problems of drug accumulation especially in the elderly or those with liver disease, and shorter-acting benzodiazepines have a higher risk of more severe withdrawal symptoms. In the case of the nonbenzodiazepines, zaleplon may be the safest in terms of next-day sedation, and – unlike zolpidem and zopiclone – zaleplon has been found to have no association with increased motor vehicle accidents even when taken for middle-of-the-night insomnia due to its ultrashort elimination half-life.

Increased Risk of Depression

It has been claimed that insomnia causes depression and hypothesized that insomnia medications may help to treat depression. In support of this claim an analysis of data of clinical trials submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concerning the drugs zolpidem, zaleplon, and eszopiclone found that these sedative hypnotic drugs more than doubled the risks of developing depression compared to those taking placebo pills. Hypnotic drugs, therefore, may be contraindicated in patients suffering from or at risk of depression. Hypnotics were found to be more likely to cause depression than to help it. Studies have found that long-term users of sedative hypnotic drugs have a markedly raised suicide risk as well as an overall increased mortality risk. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) for insomnia, on the other hand, has been found to both improve sleep quality as well as general mental health.

Other Risks

Sleeping pills, including the Z-drugs, have been associated with an increased risk of death.

In older people this family of medications increases the risk of fractures and falls.

The Z-drug zaleplon may have fewer side effects compared to benzodiazepines.

Dependence and Withdrawal Management

Nonbenzodiazepines should not be discontinued abruptly if taken for more than a few weeks due to the risk of rebound withdrawal effects and acute withdrawal reactions, which may resemble those seen during benzodiazepine withdrawal. Treatment usually entails gradually reducing the dosage over a period of weeks or several months depending on the individual, dosage, and length of time the drug has been taken. If this approach fails, a crossover to a benzodiazepine equivalent dose of a long-acting benzodiazepine (such as chlordiazepoxide or more preferably diazepam) can be tried followed by a gradual reduction in dosage. In extreme cases and, in particular, where severe addiction and/or abuse is manifested, an inpatient detoxification may be required, with flumazenil as a possible detoxification tool.

Carcinogenicity

The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine published a paper that had carried out a systematic review of the medical literature concerning insomnia medications and raised concerns about benzodiazepine receptor agonist drugs, the benzodiazepines, and the Z-drugs that are used as hypnotics in humans. The review found that almost all trials of sleep disorders and drugs are sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry. It was found that the odds ratio for finding results favourable to industry in industry-sponsored trials was 3.6 times higher than non-industry-sponsored studies and that 24% of authors did not disclose being funded by the drug companies in their published papers when they were funded by the drug companies. The paper found that there is little research into hypnotics that is independent from the drug manufacturers. Also of concern was the lack of focus in industry-sponsored trials on their own results showing that use of hypnotics is correlated with depression.

The author was concerned that there is no discussion of adverse effects of benzodiazepine agonist hypnotics discussed in the medical literature such as significant increased levels of infection, cancers, and increased mortality in trials of hypnotic drugs and an overemphasis on the positive effects. No hypnotic manufacturer has yet tried to refute the epidemiology data that shows that use of their product is correlated with excess mortality. The author stated that “major hypnotic trials is needed to more carefully study potential adverse effects of hypnotics such as daytime impairment, infection, cancer, and death and the resultant balance of benefits and risks.” The author concluded that more independent research into daytime impairment, infection, cancer, and shortening of lives of sedative hypnotic users is needed to find the true balance of benefits and risks of benzodiazepine agonist hypnotic drugs in the treatment of insomnia. Significant increases in skin cancers and tumours are found in clinical trial data of the nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics compared to trial subjects having taken placebo tablets. Other cancers of the brain, lung, bowel, breast, and bladder also occurred. An increase of infections, possibly due to decreased immune function, also occurred in the nonbenzodiazepine users. It has been hypothesised that either depressed immune function or the viral infections themselves were the cause of the increased rates of cancer.

Initially, the FDA was hesitant to approve some of the nonbenzodiazepines due to concerns regarding increases in cancers. The author reported that, due to the fact that the FDA requires reporting of both favourable and unfavourable results of clinical trials, the FDA New Drug Application data is more reliable than the peer-reviewed literature, which is subject to serious bias regarding hypnotics. In 2008, the FDA analysed their data again and confirmed an increased rate of cancers in the randomised trials compared to placebos but concluded that the rate of cancers did not warrant any regulatory action. Later studies on several common hypnotics found that receiving hypnotic prescriptions was associated with greater than threefold increased hazards of death even when prescribed <18 pills/year and that hypnotics cause mortality through the growing US overdose epidemic.

Elderly

Nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic drugs, similar to benzodiazepines, cause impairments in body balance and standing steadiness upon waking; falls and hip fractures are frequently reported. The combination with alcohol increases these impairments. Partial but incomplete tolerance develops to these impairments. In general, nonbenzodiazepines are not recommended for older patients due to the increased risk of falls and fractures. An extensive review of the medical literature regarding the management of insomnia and the elderly found that there is considerable evidence of the effectiveness and lasting benefits of non-drug treatments for insomnia in adults of all age groups and that these interventions are underused. Compared with the benzodiazepines, the nonbenzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics offer little if any advantages in efficacy or tolerability in elderly persons. It was found that newer agents such as the melatonin agonists may be more suitable and effective for the management of chronic insomnia in elderly people. Long-term use of sedative-hypnotics for insomnia lacks an evidence base and is discouraged for reasons that include concerns about such potential adverse drug effects as cognitive impairment (e.g. anterograde amnesia), daytime sedation, motor incoordination, and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents and falls. In addition, the effectiveness and safety of long-term use of these agents remain to be determined. It was concluded that further research is needed to evaluate the long-term effects of treatment and the most appropriate management strategy for elderly persons with chronic insomnia.

Controversy

A review of the literature regarding hypnotics including the nonbenzodiazepine Z drugs concluded that these drugs cause an unjustifiable risk to the individual and to public health and lack evidence of long-term effectiveness due to tolerance. The risks include dependence, accidents, and other adverse effects. Gradual discontinuation of hypnotics leads to improved health without worsening of sleep. It is preferred that they should be prescribed for only a few days at the lowest effective dose and avoided altogether wherever possible in the elderly.

New Compounds

More recently, a range of non-sedating anxiolytic drugs derived from the same structural families as the Z-drugs have been developed, such as alpidem (Ananyxl) and pagoclone, and approved for clinical prescription. Nonbenzodiazepine drugs are much more selective than the older benzodiazepine anxiolytics, producing effective relief of anxiety/panic with little or no sedation, anterograde amnesia, or anticonvulsant effects, and are thus potentially more precise than older, anti-anxiety drugs. However, anxiolytic nonbenzodiazepines are not widely prescribed and many have collapsed after initial clinical trials and consumption halted many projects, including but not limited to alpidem, indiplon, and suriclone.