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Our brain makes its own Valium: What the new discovery means

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
New finding shows our brain makes its own Valium.

Stanford University researchers have discovered our brain makes its own Valium in a finding that is a first.

According to the scientists, understanding of the newly discovered chemical that can calm brain activity could lead to new treatments for epilepsy, sleep disorders and anxiety that have fewer side effects than currently developed drugs.

Valium or diazepam belongs to a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines that can be addictive, lead to memory problems and can be dangerous in high doses.

John Huguenard, PhD, professor of neurology and neurological sciences and the study's senior author of the study said in a press release, "Our results show for the first time that a nucleus deep in the middle of the brain generates a small protein product, or peptide, that acts just like benzodiazepines."

The protein is known as diazepam binding inhibitor, or DBI that is made by every cell in the body. Another name for the chemical is ACBP or Acyl-CoA-binding protein.

Researchers have been studying natural chemicals released by the body, including endorphins that are the body’s ‘pain killers’ for years.

They know that when DBI leaves the brain cells it is broken down to produce a Valium effect on the brain that is biochemically similar to the benzodiazepine.

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The scientists explain DBI binds to chemical messengers known as GABA that are receptors found on the surface of roughly one-fifth of brain cells.

When DBI binds with GABA receptors, brain activity becomes slower. The researchers found the chemical slows brain seizure activity in mice.

"By finding out exactly which cells are releasing DBI under what biochemical circumstances, it may someday be possible to develop agents that could jump-start and boost its activity in epileptic patients at the very onset of seizures, effectively nipping them in the bud," Huguenard explains.

DBI production was found to occur predominantly in the thalamus of the brain that relays a variety of sensory information to other parts of the brain, such as hearing, taste, smell, touch and emotions.

The researchers aren’t sure yet whether DBI itself acts like Valium in the brain, or if it the effect is from fragments or peptides of the chemical. The hope is to find a way to increase the activity of DBI in the brain to stop seizures as soon as they start for patients with epilepsy.

The finding is published May 30 in the journal Neuron

The scientists say the discovery of how the brain makes its own Valium could also lead to new and less addictive therapies for treating insomnia and anxiety.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons