What are Barbiturates?

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Barbiturates are a class of synthetic drug that acts as a central nervous system suppressant. Introduced to the medical and scientific world in the early 1900s, they revolutionized the treatment of psychiatric and neurological disorders including several that were previously untreatable. Adolf von Baeyer, founder of the Baeyer Chemical Company -now Bayer Pharmaceuticals-, is credited with introducing barbiturates through the synthesis of Malonyl urea (barbituric acid). He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry in 1905 for his contributions.

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The Difference Between Suppressants and Stimulants

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When dealing with the central nervous system, drugs are typically divided into two categories: suppressant or stimulant.

Those that fall into the suppressant category act by slowing down brain activity, inducing a drowsy or calming state. Barbiturates, alcohol, and narcotics are all categorized as suppressants. Most depressants work by activating production of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is responsible for the process of falling to sleep. People who use depressants regularly over an extended period of time are likely to develop a tolerance, causing them to up the dosage and risk accidental overdosing.

Stimulants such as caffeine, adderall, and methamphetamine cause the opposite effect. They flood the system with dopamine and norepinephrine, the chemicals responsible for pleasure, happiness, and excitement of the ‘fight or flight’ reflex. Symptoms such as insomnia, increased heart rate, irritability, and aggression are common with stimulant use. People using stimulants also run the risk of overdosing due to increased tolerance.

Applications of Barbiturates

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As one of the oldest form of sedative, barbiturates were one of the first medicinal treatments for schizophrenia, psychosis, neurosis, and epilepsy. The effects of barbiturates range from mild sedation to complete anesthesia. Barbiturates as anesthetics revolutionized surgical procedures by also introducing the possibility of partial anesthesia. The introduction of barbiturates pioneered the intravenous delivery of anesthetics, allowing faster effects and greater control of doses.  Early applications also included use as anxiolytics and hypnotics for those suffering severe anxiety and emotional problems. Barbiturates are rarely prescribed today due to safety concerns.

Are Barbiturates Dangerous?

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Improper use of barbiturates can be incredibly dangerous. Like other suppressants, barbiturates cause drowsiness, impaired motor function, and dulled mental awareness. Small doses of barbiturates  may causes reactions similar to intoxication, such as slurred speech, stumbling, and confusion. Because it interacts with the central nervous system, improper dosage of barbiturates can cause severe brain damage, coma, and death.

Are Barbiturates Addictive?

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Barbiturate abuse has been on the incline over the last 10 years. This is primarily because users of other stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine use supressants to counteract the effects of the drug. This method of “coming down” is believed to negate any negative side effects, however it is extremely dangerous due to the possibility of overwhelming the central nervous system and causing severe, irreparable damage.

Others who abuse barbiturates want to experience the drowsy, ‘drunken’ feeling caused by depressents. Teenagers especially seek the loss of inhibitions and euphoria caused by barbiturates suppressing the thought centers of the brain, often unaware of the dangers of abuse. People suffering from severe anxiety or neurosis may find themselves dependent on barbiturates to properly function on a daily basis. Those prescribed barbiturates for physical pain or management of psychological problems are especially prone to becoming dependent.

Street Names of Barbiturates

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Because barbiturates are a category of drug with different subsects, there are an assortment of street names, such as:

  • Barbs
  • Downers
  • Sleepers
  • Stumblers
  • Yellow Jackets
  • Red Dolls
  • Tootsies
  • Rainbows
  • Blue Heavens
  • Blue Devils
  • Nembies
  • Purple Hearts
  • Goof balls
  • Pink ladies


Barbiturate abuse is dangerous! If you suspect someone you know is addicted to barbiturates, help them get the help they need today.

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