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Slowing Down the Brain With Depressants: Alcohol, Barbiturates and Benzodiazepines, and Toxic Inhalants

24 September, 2015 - 15:22

In contrast to stimulants, which work to increase neural activity, a depressantacts to slow down consciousness. A depressant is a psychoactive drug that reduces the activity of the CNS. Depressants are widely used as prescription medicines to relieve pain, to lower heart rate and respiration, and as anticonvulsants. Depressants change consciousness by increasing the production of the neurotransmitter GABA and decreasing the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, usually at the level of the thalamus and the reticular formation. The outcome of depressant use (similar to the effects of sleep) is a reduction in the transmission of impulses from the lower brain to the cortex (Csaky & Barnes, 1984). 1

The most commonly used of the depressants is alcohol, a colorless liquid, produced by the fermentation of sugar or starch, that is the intoxicating agent in fermented drinks. Alcohol is the oldest and most widely used drug of abuse in the world. In low to moderate doses, alcohol first acts to remove social inhibitions by slowing activity in the sympathetic nervous system. In higher doses, alcohol acts on the cerebellum to interfere with coordination and balance, producing the staggering gait of drunkenness. At high blood levels, further CNS depression leads to dizziness, nausea, and eventually a loss of consciousness. High enough blood levels such as those produced by “guzzling” large amounts of hard liquor at parties can be fatal. Alcohol is not a “safe” drug by any means—its safety ratio is only 10.

Alcohol use is highly costly to societies because so many people abuse alcohol and because judgment after drinking can be substantially impaired. It is estimated that almost half of automobile fatalities are caused by alcohol use, and excessive alcohol consumption is involved in a majority of violent crimes, including rape and murder (Abbey, Ross, McDuffie, & McAuslan, 1996). 2 Alcohol increases the likelihood that people will respond aggressively to provocations (Bushman, 1993, 1997; Graham, Osgood, Wells, & Stockwell, 2006). 3 Even people who are not normally aggressive may react with aggression when they are intoxicated. Alcohol use also leads to rioting, unprotected sex, and other negative outcomes.

Alcohol increases aggression in part because it reduces the ability of the person who has consumed it to inhibit his or her aggression (Steele & Southwick, 1985). 4 When people are intoxicated, they become more self-focused and less aware of the social situation. As a result, they become less likely to notice the social constraints that normally prevent them from engaging aggressively, and are less likely to use those social constraints to guide them. For instance, we might normally notice the presence of a police officer or other people around us, which would remind us that being aggressive is not appropriate. But when we are drunk, we are less likely to be so aware. The narrowing of attention that occurs when we are intoxicated also prevents us from being cognizant of the negative outcomes of our aggression. When we are sober, we realize that being aggressive may produce retaliation, as well as cause a host of other problems, but we are less likely to realize these potential consequences when we have been drinking (Bushman & Cooper, 1990). 5 Alcohol also influences aggression through expectations. If we expect that alcohol will make us more aggressive, then we tend to become more aggressive when we drink.

Barbiturates are depressants that are commonly prescribed as sleeping pills and painkillers. Brand names include Luminal (Phenobarbital), Mebaraland, Nembutal, Seconal, and Sombulex. In small to moderate doses, barbiturates produce relaxation and sleepiness, but in higher doses symptoms may include sluggishness, difficulty in thinking, slowness of speech, drowsiness, faulty judgment, and eventually coma or even death (Medline Plus, 2008). 6

Related to barbiturates, benzodiazepines are a family of depressants used to treat anxiety, insomnia, seizures, and muscle spasms. In low doses, they produce mild sedation and relieve anxiety; in high doses, they induce sleep. In the United States, benzodiazepines are among the most widely prescribed medications that affect the CNS. Brand names include Centrax, Dalmane, Doral, Halcion, Librium, ProSom, Restoril, Xanax, and Valium.

Toxic inhalants are also frequently abused as depressants. These drugs are easily accessible as the vapors of glue, gasoline, propane, hair spray, and spray paint, and are inhaled to create a change in consciousness. Related drugs are the nitrites (amyl and butyl nitrite; “poppers,” “rush,” “locker room”) and anesthetics such as nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and ether. Inhalants are some of the most dangerous recreational drugs, with a safety index below 10, and their continued use may lead to permanent brain damage.