The term “downer” is commonly referred to any drug that causes tiredness, or “slows” users down. Sleeping pills or painkillers might be included in this category, but “downer” is a popularly used term, and not a scientific one. Medically, there are classes of drugs that are grouped together because they share the action of slowing down the central nervous system. They are called GABAergic drugs, because they trigger the release of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain.* GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the mammalian nervous system. In other words, GABA has a calming effect, and slows down activity in the brain.
GABAergic drugs have useful medical applications. Because of their calming effect, they can be used to treat disorders involving too much activity in the central nervous system. Examples include seizures, anxiety, insomnia, and restless legs syndrome. However, GABAergic drugs are also prone to abuse. Since they act on the nervous system directly, users can “feel” the drugs. GABAergic drugs induce feelings of profound relaxation. Consumption of GABAergic drugs can cause an elevated mood, lowered inhibitions, lowered anxiety, addiction, and in high doses, amnesia (gaps in memory) coma and death.
The oldest, most well-known and most widely-used GABAergic drug is ethanol, usually known as alcohol. Human use of alcohol dates back thousands of years, before the dawn of history. Alcohol has a range of effects on the human body, and increasing levels of GABA is just one of them. Alcohol is commonly consumed as a recreational drug while socializing.
One of the oldest GABAergic drugs besides alcohol is chloral hydrate. Chloral hydrate was first synthesized in the 19th century. It was originally prescribed for insomnia, but its ease of synthesis led to it becoming widely prescribed and abused. It has been involved in many famous deaths, including Anna Nicole Smith, Marilyn Monroe, and the Jonestown mass suicides. Chloral hydrate is now rare, having been replaced by newer and safer agents.
In the 20th century came the dawn of the barbiturates. Barbiturates were the first generation of drugs developed for their depressant effects, and used to treat insomnia, seizures, and anxiety. Abuse of barbiturates is very dangerous, because they can easily cause coma and death by causing respiratory depression in overdose situations. Barbiturates have also been involved in the death of celebrities, including Jimi Hendrix. Barbiturates are rarely prescribed today, and have largely been replaced by benzodiazepines.
For a brief period in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a commonly abused prescription drug called methaqualone, commonly known by its trade name, Quaalude. Quaaludes were enormously popular among drug users, and it quickly became apparent to the FDA and the DEA that methaqualone was causing more problems than it was solving. Today, Quaaludes are a Schedule I substance on the Controlled Substances List in the US, the “completely illegal” category with “no medical use.”
Benzodiazepines, or “benzos,” were developed in the mid-20th as safer alternatives to barbiturates. Examples of barbiturates include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), and flunitrazepam (Rohypnol, sometimes called “roofies” when used as a date-rape drug). Benzos are widely prescribed today, and are less likely to be fatal in overdose. They are also widely abused: Xanax “bars” are a common prescription drug sold on the streets. Recreational users of benzos are normally poly-substance abusers, and use benzos to add to the effects of other drugs such as alcohol, opiates, and cannabis. Abusers of benzos can find themselves blacking out and forgetting what they did and where they were under the influence of the drug. Car accidents are common. Sometimes users awake to find themselves in prison and unable to recall how they got there.
Repeated administration of GABAergic drugs can cause physical dependence. Dependence to any of these is extremely dangerous, because sudden withdrawal will result in an overabundance of brain activity, which can cause seizures and death. Alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal can be fatal! GABAergic drugs can also cause permanent, irreversible cognitive impairment. Some benzo abusers lose huge chunks of memory and never get them back.
Fortunately, there are drugs that can wean addicts off of addiction to GABAergic drugs, much in the same way methadone is used to wean addicts off of opiates. These include the benzodiazepines diazepam and chlordiazepoxide (Valium and Librium). If you have an addiction to benzos or any other GABAergic substance, get help today!
*Technically, any drug that interacts with GABA is GABAergic, which also includes GABA receptor antagonist ligands, which do the opposite of the drugs listed here, and are generally not drugs of abuse. For simplicity, I use “GABAergic” to refer to GABA receptor agonist ligands.