Silencing the brain may be better than stimulating it. The GABA effect

Francesca Pistoia, Marco Sarà, Simona Sacco, Marco Franceschini, Antonio Carolei

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cases of recovery from vegetative and minimally conscious state after the administration of various pharmacological agents have been recently reported. These agents include CNS depressants (zolpidem, baclofen, lamotrigine) and CNS stimulants (tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, dopaminergic agents, methylphenidate). The action of CNS depressants as awakening agents sounds paradoxical, as they are commonly prescribed to slow down brain activity in the management of anxiety, muscle tension, pain, insomnia and seizures. How these drugs may improve the level of consciousness in some brain-injured patients is the subject of intense debate. Here we hypothesize that CNS depressants may promote consciousness recovery by reversing a condition of GABA impairment in the injured brain, restoring the normal ratio between synaptic excitation and inhibition, which is the prerequisite for any transition from a resting state to goal-oriented activities (GABA impairment hypothesis). Alternative or complementary mechanisms underlying the improvement of consciousness may include the reversal of a neurodormant state within areas affected by diaschisis (diaschisis hypothesis) and the modulation of an informative overload to the cortex as a consequence of filter failure in the injured brain (informative overload hypothesis). A better understanding of how single agents act on neural networks, whose functioning is critical for recovery, may help to advance a tailored pharmacological approach in the treatment of severely brain injured patients.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4154-4166
Number of pages13
JournalCurrent Pharmaceutical Design
Issue number26
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Disorders of consciousness
  • GABA
  • Minimally conscious state
  • Vegetative state

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Drug Discovery
  • Pharmacology
  • Medicine(all)


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