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Valium 'works like heroin'
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They said: "Common illnesses such as anxiety disorders, insomnia and even muscle spasms are treated with benzodiazepine drugs, of which diazepam (Valium) is perhaps the best known.
Diazepam, better known by the defunct brand name Valium, increases "feel good" dopamine levels which are typically targeted by other addictive drugs.
Dr Luscher said: "Our work unravels the molecular basis of the defining pharmacological features that benzodiazepines share with addictive drugs, which we believe will be key for designing new BDZs with lower addiction liability.".
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So other benzodiazepines that bind elsewhere on the molecule may offer therapeutic benefits without the addictive side-effects.
After reviewing the paper neuroscientists Dr Arthur Riegel and Professor Peter Kalivas said the mystery of how benzodiazepines affects the brain has finally been solved.
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They described the discovery as "a landmark for the field" and said the research has highlighted an exciting possibility.
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Dr Christian Luscher and colleagues at the University of Geneva said a chemical produced in the brain called GABA boosts dopamine levels within cell circuits that are acted upon by opioids and cannabinoids.
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The effect seems to be dependent on the ability of benzodiazepines to bind to a particular part of a particular GABA receptor, known as a subunit.
Dr Riegel and Prof Kalivas, of the University of South Carolina, added: "If benzodiazepines can be designed that lack affinity for this subunit, then the addictive properties of these versatile and useful drugs might be reduced." In Health News Top news galleries.
Diazepam, launched by Swiss pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche in 1963, is one of a group of drugs known as benzodiazepines and has grown in popularity among junkies as a cheap substitute for heroin.
"But both conventional benzodiazepines and newer benzo diazepine-like compounds (such as zolpidem) are addictive. This limits the therapeutic potential of an otherwise safe class of drugs that has broad clinical applications.".Diazepam valium