The barbiturate phenobarbital has been in use in the treatment of epilepsy for 100 years. It has long been recognized that barbiturates act by prolonging and potentiating the action of γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) on GABA(A) receptors and at higher concentrations directly activating the receptors. A large body of data supports the concept that GABA(A) receptors are the primary central nervous system target for barbiturates, including the finding that transgenic mice with a point mutation in the β3 GABA(A) -receptor subunit exhibit diminished sensitivity to the sedative and immobilizing actions of the anesthetic barbiturate pentobarbital. Although phenobarbital is only modestly less potent as a GABA(A) -receptor modulator than pentobarbital, phenobarbital is minimally sedating at effective anticonvulsant doses. Possible explanations for the reduced sedative effect of phenobarbital include more regionally restricted action; partial agonist activity; reduced propensity to directly activate GABA(A) receptors (possibly including extrasynaptic receptors containing δ subunits); and reduced activity at other ion channel targets, including voltage-gated calcium channels. In recent years, substantial progress has been made in defining the structural features of GABA(A) receptors responsible for gating and allosteric modulation by drugs. Although the precise sites of action of barbiturates have not yet been defined, the second and third transmembrane domains of the β subunit appear to be critical; binding may involve a pocket formed by β-subunit methionine 286 as well as α-subunit methionine 236. In addition to effects on GABA(A) receptors, barbiturates block AMPA/kainate receptors, and they inhibit glutamate release through an effect on P/Q-type high-voltage activated calcium channels. The combination of these various actions likely accounts for their diverse clinical activities. Despite the remarkable progress of the last century, there is still much to learn about the actions of barbiturates that can be applied to the discovery of new, more therapeutically useful agents.
Wiley Periodicals, Inc. © 2012 International League Against Epilepsy.