Benzodiazepines (BZD, BZs), sometimes called “benzos”, are a class of psychoactive drugs whose core chemical structure is the fusion of a benzene ring and a diazepine ring. The first such drug, chlordiazepoxide (Librium), was discovered accidentally by Leo Sternbach in 1955, and made available in 1960 by Hoffmann–La Roche, which, since 1963, has also marketed the benzodiazepine diazepam (Valium). In 1977 benzodiazepines were globally the most prescribed medications. They are in the family of drugs commonly known as minor tranquilizers.
Chemical structure diagram of a benzene ring fused to a diazepine ring. Another benzene ring is attached to the bottom of the diazepine ring via a single line. Attached to the first benzene ring is a side chain labeled R7; to the second, a side chain labeled R2′; and attached to the diazepine ring, two side chains labeled R1 and R2.
The core structure of benzodiazepines. “R” labels denote common locations of side chains, which give different benzodiazepines their unique properties.
Benzodiazepines enhance the effect of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) at the GABAA receptor, resulting in sedative, hypnotic (sleep-inducing), anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), anticonvulsant, and muscle relaxant properties. High doses of many shorter-acting benzodiazepines may also cause anterograde amnesia and dissociation. These properties make benzodiazepines useful in treating anxiety, insomnia, agitation, seizures, muscle spasms, alcohol withdrawal and as a premedication for medical or dental procedures. Benzodiazepines are categorized as either short-, intermediate-, or long-acting. Short- and intermediate-acting benzodiazepines are preferred for the treatment of insomnia; longer-acting benzodiazepines are recommended for the treatment of anxiety.