Barbiturates: Categories, Effects & Uses

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  • 0:00 Barbiturates
  • 0:30 Categories
  • 1:32 Effects
  • 3:18 Uses
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Barbiturates are categorized according to how long their effects last. Learn about the different categories of barbiturates and the sedative effects they have on your body. By viewing this lesson, you will also learn how barbiturates are used today.


If you ever saw someone who had too much alcohol to drink, you likely noticed that they slurred their speech, had decreased motor control and did things that clearly showed impaired judgment. Barbiturates, which are a class of drugs that depress the central nervous system, affect a person in a similar way to alcohol. In this lesson, we will take a look at how these drugs are categorized, their effects and how they are used in medicine.


Barbiturates are split into categories based on how long their effects last. Some barbiturates are categorized as ultra-short-acting. These drugs are quick to take effect, but short lived. For example, the ultra-short variety can start working within a minute after administration, but as the name implies, the effects don't stick around for very long, lasting anywhere from fifteen minutes to three hours.

There are also short-acting and intermediate-acting barbiturates. As you might guess from this naming system, each progressive category of drug takes longer to take effect than the one before and last for a longer duration of time. Staying true to this rule, we see that the final category of barbiturates is referred to as long-acting; these drugs are slow to take effect, but long lived. The effects take up to an hour to start showing, yet last up to 12 hours.


We learned earlier that barbiturates depress or slow down your central nervous system. They do this by turning up some of the relaxing chemical messengers in your brain. Specifically, barbiturates increase the activity of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). In a normal brain, GABA helps quiet brain activity by blocking certain nerve impulses; this makes you feel relaxed. Barbiturates enhance GABA's job, leaving you feeling even more relaxed.

Because of this action, it's easy to see that the general effects of the drugs range from mild relaxation to heavy sedation. These effects are how barbiturates earn the nickname 'downers.'

As we mentioned at the beginning of this lesson, barbiturates can affect the body in a way that is similar to the effects of alcohol. Thus we see that barbiturates, taken in relatively low doses, can cause slurred speech, decreased motor control, impaired judgment, drowsiness and confusion. If higher doses are taken, the effects are enhanced, leading to loss of consciousness and, if not controlled, breathing difficulties and even death.

Barbiturates are physically and psychologically addictive, and therefore, their use is strictly regulated. Still, some of the drugs find their way onto the street where they are sold for recreational purposes. Prolonged use causes the user to build up a tolerance to the drug. When this happens, the person needs higher doses of the drug to gain the same desired effect. As the dosage increases, so does the risk of death due to respiratory arrest.

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