Barbiturates: Mechanisms, Types, and Clinical Relevance


Barbiturates are a class of drugs known for their sedative-hypnotic effects, used in the management of conditions like seizure disorders, neonatal withdrawal, insomnia, preoperative anxiety, and the induction of coma for increased intracranial pressure. Additionally, they have a role in inducing anesthesia, with thiopental being a notable example introduced back in 1934 for this purpose1.


Barbiturates are derived from barbituric acid and are primarily utilized as sedatives and anticonvulsants. They can be classified based on their duration of action into:

    1. Ultra-Short-Acting:
      • Thiopental: Primarily used in the induction of anesthesia.
      • Methohexital: Another agent used in anesthesia induction.
    2. Short-Acting:
      • Secobarbital: Employed for its sedative and hypnotic effects.
      • Pentobarbital: Used as a sedative and in controlling seizures.
    3. Intermediate-Acting:
      • Butabarbital (Butisol): Utilized as a sedative.
      • Amobarbital: Known for its hypnotic properties.
    4. Long-Acting:
      • Phenobarbital: Employed in controlling seizures and as a sedative.
      • Mephobarbital: Also used for its anticonvulsant and sedative effects.

    Mechanism of Action

    The primary mechanism hinges on augmenting the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) activity at the GABA_A receptor. The activation of this receptor, a chloride channel, inhibits the neuron’s action potential, rendering it less likely to fire, which in turn exerts a calming effect on the brain.


    • Absorption: Rapidly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract.
    • Distribution: Widely distributed throughout the body. They can cross the blood-brain barrier and placenta.
    • Metabolism: Primarily metabolized in the liver through hepatic enzymes.
    • Excretion: Excreted in urine, both as metabolites and unchanged drugs.

    Pharmacological Actions

    • Central Nervous System (CNS): Produce sedation and hypnosis and can lead to anesthesia and respiratory depression.
    • Cardiovascular System: Can cause decreased blood pressure and bradycardia.
    • Respiratory System: Lead to respiratory depression and decreased respiratory rate.
    • Liver: Induce hepatic enzymes, potentially affecting the metabolism of other drugs.

    Therapeutic Uses

      • Methohexital & Thiopental: Anesthesia induction.
      • Pentobarbital & Secobarbital: Short-term treatment of insomnia.
      • Amobarbital & Butabarbital: Sedation, anxiety relief.
      • Phenobarbital & Mephobarbital: Long-term treatment of epilepsy.

    Side Effects

      • Methohexital & Thiopental: Respiratory depression, hypotension.
      • Pentobarbital & Secobarbital: Drowsiness, dizziness, nausea.
      • Amobarbital & Butabarbital: Dependency, drowsiness.
      • Phenobarbital & Mephobarbital: Dependency, drowsiness, vitamin D deficiency.

    Barbiturate Toxicity

    Overdose can lead to profound CNS depression, respiratory failure, and hypotension and can be fatal.

    Management of Barbiturate Toxicity

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    Immediate medical attention is required. Management includes:

      • Supportive care (airway management, oxygenation).
      • Activated charcoal if ingestion is recent.
      • Hemodialysis in severe cases.


      • Porphyria: Barbiturates can exacerbate this condition.
      • Severe respiratory diseases: Due to the risk of respiratory depression.
      • Pregnancy: Risk of fetal abnormalities.

    Drug Interactions

      • Alcohol: Enhanced CNS depression.
      • Antihistamines: Increased sedative effects.
      • Oral contraceptives: Reduced efficacy due to enzyme induction.

    Historical Context and Decline in Usage

    The zenith of barbiturate usage was witnessed during the 1960s and 1970s. However, the advent of benzodiazepines, which harbour a wider therapeutic window and a lower risk of overdose, has significantly overshadowed the use of barbiturates.

    Recent Advancements

    Despite the shift towards benzodiazepines and other safer alternatives, barbiturates like phenobarbital continue to hold a place in certain therapeutic areas, particularly in the management of certain types of epilepsy.


    Barbiturates, once widely used, have seen a decline in their therapeutic use due to the potential for overdose and the development of safer alternatives like benzodiazepines. However, they still have specific clinical applications, especially in the management of epilepsy and induction of anesthesia. Proper understanding and caution are essential when prescribing and using these drugs.

    Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions related to medication or treatment.

    Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Always seek the advice of a healthcare provider with any questions regarding a medical condition.

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