GABA Receptors and the Pharmacology of Sleep

Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2019;253:279-304. doi: 10.1007/164_2017_56.


Current GABAergic sleep-promoting medications were developed pragmatically, without making use of the immense diversity of GABAA receptors. Pharmacogenetic experiments are leading to an understanding of the circuit mechanisms in the hypothalamus by which zolpidem and similar compounds induce sleep at α2βγ2-type GABAA receptors. Drugs acting at more selective receptor types, for example, at receptors containing the α2 and/or α3 subunits expressed in hypothalamic and brain stem areas, could in principle be useful as hypnotics/anxiolytics. A highly promising sleep-promoting drug, gaboxadol, which activates αβδ-type receptors failed in clinical trials. Thus, for the time being, drugs such as zolpidem, which work as positive allosteric modulators at GABAA receptors, continue to be some of the most effective compounds to treat primary insomnia.

Keywords: Benzodiazepine; GABA-A receptor; GABA-B receptor; Gaboxadol; Histamine; Sedation; Steroid; THIP; Z-drug; Zolpidem.

MeSH terms

  • Hypnotics and Sedatives
  • Receptors, GABA*
  • Receptors, GABA-A* / physiology
  • Sleep
  • Zolpidem / pharmacology*


  • Hypnotics and Sedatives
  • Receptors, GABA
  • Receptors, GABA-A
  • Zolpidem