The gamma-hydroxybutyrate signalling system in brain: organization and functional implications

Prog Neurobiol. 1997 Feb;51(3):337-61. doi: 10.1016/s0301-0082(96)00064-0.


gamma-Hydroxybutyrate is a metabolite of GABA which is synthesized and accumulated by neurons in brain. This substance is present in micromolar quantities in all brain regions investigated as well as in several peripheral organs. Neuronal depolarization releases gamma-hydroxybutyrate into the extracellular space in a Ca(2+)-dependent manner. Gamma-hydroxybutyrate high-affinity receptors are present only in neurons, with a restricted specific distribution in the hippocampus, cortex and dopaminergic structures of rat brain (the striatum in general, olfactory bulbs and tubercles, frontal cortex, dopaminergic nuclei A9, A10 and A12). Stimulation of these receptors with low amounts of gamma-hydroxybutyrate induces in general hyperpolarizations in dopaminergic structures with a reduction of dopamine release. However, in the hippocampus and the frontal cortex, it seems that gamma-hydroxybutyrate induces depolarization with an accumulation of cGMP and an increase in inositol phosphate turnover. Some of the electrophysiological effects of GHB are blocked by NCS-382, a gamma-hydroxybutyrate receptor antagonist while some others are strongly attenuated by GABAB receptors antagonists. Gamma-hydroxybutyrate penetrates freely into the brain when administered intravenously or intraperitoneally. This is a unique situation for a molecule with signalling properties in the brain. Thus, the gamma-hydroxybutyrate concentration in brain easily can be increased more than 100 times. Under these conditions, gamma-hydroxybutyrate receptors are saturated and probably desensitized and down-regulated. It is unlikely that GABAB receptors could be stimulated directly by GHB. Most probably, GABA is released in part under the control of GHB receptors in specific pathways expressing GABAB receptors. Alternatively, GABAB receptors might be specifically stimulated by the GABA formed via the metabolism of gamma-hydroxybutyrate in brain. In animals and man, these GHBergic and GABAergic potentiations induce dopaminergic hyperactivity (which follows the first phase of dopaminergic terminal hyperpolarization), a strong sedation with anaesthesia and some EEG changes with epileptic spikes. It is presumed that, under pathological conditions (hepatic failure, alcoholic intoxication, succinic semialdehyde dehydrogenase defects), the rate of GHB synthesis or degradation in the peripheral organ is modified and induces increased GHB levels which could interfere with the normal brain mechanisms. This pathological status could benefit from treatments with gamma-hydroxybutyric and/or GABAB receptors antagonists. Nevertheless, the regulating properties of the endogenous gamma-hydroxybutyrate system on the dopaminergic pathways are a cause for the recent interest in synthetic ligands acting specifically at gamma-hydroxybutyrate receptors and devoid of any role as metabolic precursor of GABA in brain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Mammals
  • Models, Neurological
  • Rats
  • Receptors, GABA / physiology
  • Schizophrenia / drug therapy
  • Schizophrenia / physiopathology
  • Second Messenger Systems
  • Seizures / physiopathology
  • Serotonin / physiology
  • Signal Transduction*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / therapy
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / physiology*


  • Receptors, GABA
  • Serotonin
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid