Drugs for insomnia beyond benzodiazepines: Pharmacology, clinical applications, and discovery

T Atkin, S Comai, G Gobbi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although the GABAergic benzodiazepines (BZDs) and Z-drugs (zolpidem, zopiclone, and zaleplon) are FDA-approved for insomnia disorders with a strong evidence base, they have many side effects, including cognitive impairment, tolerance, rebound insomnia upon discontinuation, car accidents/falls, abuse, and dependence liability. Consequently, the clinical use of off-label drugs and novel drugs that do not target the GABAergic system is increasing. The purpose of this review is to analyze the neurobiological and clinical evidence of pharmacological treatments of insomnia, excluding the BZDs and Z-drugs. We analyzed the melatonergic agonist drugs, agomelatine, prolongedrelease melatonin, ramelteon, and tasimelteon; the dual orexin receptor antagonist suvorexant; the modulators of the a2d subunit of voltage-sensitive calcium channels, gabapentin and pregabalin; the H1 antagonist, low-dose doxepin; and the histamine and serotonin receptor antagonists, amitriptyline, mirtazapine, trazodone, olanzapine, and quetiapine. The pharmacology and mechanism of action of these treatments and the evidence-base for the use of these drugs in clinical practice is outlined alongwith novel pipelines. There is evidence to recommend suvorexant and low-dose doxepin for sleep maintenance insomnia; there is also sufficient evidence to recommend ramelteon for sleep onset insomnia. Although there is limited evidence for the use of the quetiapine, trazodone, mirtazapine, amitriptyline, pregabalin, gabapentin, agomelatine, and olanzapine as treatments for insomnia disorder, these drugs may improve sleep while successfully treating comorbid disorders, with a different side effect profile than the BZDs and Z-drugs. The unique mechanism of action of each drug allows for a more personalized and targeted medical management of insomnia. © 2018 by The American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)197-245
Number of pages49
JournalPharmacological Reviews
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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