What are benzodiazepines?
In the 1950s, chemists searching for drugs to reduce anxiety came up with benzodiazepines. The best known of these is Valium (diazepam). All have a calming effect, without much drowsiness. Benzodiazepines inhibit the activity of neurons in the brain, especially in the parts that deal with emotions. Like barbiturates, they work by increasing the activity of a naturally occurring neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
How are benzodiazepines used?
In 1975 Valium was the world's bestselling drug – 15% of Americans were taking it. Most doctors have now stopped prescribing benzodiazepines for long-term use because of worries that they might cause addiction. Benzodiazepines are still widely used to treat anxiety attacks, to help people who have difficulty sleeping and to calm people before a general anaesthetic or dental treatment.