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Barbiturates are drugs that act as central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and by virtue of this they produce a wide spectrum of effects, from mild sedation to anesthesia. Some are also used as anticonvulsants.

Barbiturates are derivatives of barbituric acid.


Medical uses

Today barbiturates are infrequently used as anticonvulsants and for the induction of anesthesia. Benzodiazepines were made as barbiturate alternatives and as such are more widely used and prescribed today than the barbiturate drugs.

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These barbiturates are available in the U.S.:

  • Amobarbital (Sodium Amytal; hypnotic)
  • Aprobarbital (hypnotic)
  • Butabarbital (hypnotic)
  • Butalbital (Fiorinal; sedative)
  • Hexobarbital (Sombulex; hypnotic/anesthetic)
  • Mephobarbital (antianxiety)
  • Pentobarbital (Nembutal; hypnotic)
  • Phenobarbital (Luminal; hypnotic, sedative, anticonvulsant)
  • Secobarbital (Seconal; hypnotic)
  • Sodium thiopental
  • Talbutal (Lotusate; hypnotic)
  • Thiobarbital (anesthetic)
  • Sometimes two or more barbiturates are combined in a single tablet or capsule; perhaps the most well-known of these combinations is Tuinal, which consists of amobarbital and secobarbital in equal proportions.

Barbiturate abuse

Barbiturates were very popular in the first half of the 20th century. In moderate amounts, these drugs produce a state of intoxication that is remarkably similar to alcohol intoxication. Symptoms include slurred speech, loss of motor coordination, and impaired judgment. Depending on the dose, frequency, and duration of use, one can rapidly develop tolerance, physical dependence, and psychological dependence to barbiturates. With the development of tolerance, the margin of safety between the effective dose and the lethal dose becomes very narrow. That is, in order to obtain the same level of intoxication, the tolerant abuser may raise his or her dose to a level that may result in coma or death. Although many individuals have taken barbiturates therapeutically without harm, concern about the addiction potential (withdrawal symptoms can include tonic-clonic or grand mal seizures potentially leading to permanent disability or even death) of barbiturates and the ever-increasing number of fatalities associated with them led to the development of alternative medications, namely benzodiazepines. Today, fewer than 10 percent of all sedative/hypnotic prescriptions in the United States are for barbiturates.


  • Dec 4, 1863 Barbituric acid is discovered by Belgian researcher Adolf von Baeyer. His discovery came on the day of St. Barbara, so he chose the name "barbiturate" as a combination of St. Barbara and "urea". Another possible explanation is that he named the substance after his girlfriend Barbara.
  • 1903 Barbitone, the first medicinal barbiturate, is synthesized from barbituric acid by German scientists Emil Hermann Fischer and Joseph von Mering. It was marketed under the trade name Veronal.
  • 1912 Phenobarbital is introduced under the trade name Luminal as a sedative-hypnotic.
  • 1950s - 1960s Reports increase about side effects and dependence related to barbiturates.
  • 1970 Pentobarbital (II), secobarbital (II), amobarbital (II), butabarbital (III), phenobarbital (IV), and barbital (IV) are all scheduled with the passage of the U.S. Drug Abuse Regulation and Control Act of 1970.
  • 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances is signed in Vienna. Designed to regulate amphetamines, barbiturates, and other synthetics, the treaty today regulates amobarbital (III), butalbital (III), cyclobarbital (III), pentobarbital (III), allobarbital (IV), methylphenobarbital (IV), phenobarbital (IV), secbutabarbital (IV), and vinylbital (IV) as scheduled substances.

Other non-therapeutical use

Barbiturates in high doses are used for physician-assisted suicide (PAS), and, in combination with a muscle relaxant, for euthanasia and for capital punishment by lethal injection.


  • Marilyn Monroe died from an overdose of barbiturates, as did George Sanders.
  • Michael Rabin (violinist), one of the most prodigious violinists America has ever had, became dependent on barbiturates and his death was partially linked to abuse of this drug.


Text partially derived from public domain text from U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Barbiturate".

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