Central nervous system depression

Central nervous system depression or CNS depression refers to physiological depression of the central nervous system that can result in decreased rate of breathing, decreased heart rate, and loss of consciousness possibly leading to coma or death. CNS depression is specifically the result of inhibited brain activity.[1]


CNS depression is generally caused by the use of depressant drugs such as alcohol, opioids, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, general anesthetics, and anticonvulsants such as pregabalin used to treat epilepsy. [2] [3] Drug overdose is often caused by combining two or more depressant drugs, although overdose is certainly possible by consuming a large dose of one depressant drug. CNS depression can also be caused by the accidental or intentional inhalation or ingestion of certain volatile chemicals such as Butanone (contained in Plastic Cement) or Isopropyl Alcohol. Other causes of CNS depression are metabolic disturbances such as hypoglycaemia.


In a study comparing the central nervous depression due to supra-therapeutic doses of Triazolam (Benzodiazepine), Pentobarbital (Barbiturate) and GHB it appeared as if GHB had the strongest dose-effect function. Since, GHB had a high correlation between its dose and its central nervous system depression it has a high risk of accidental overdose. In the case of accidental overdose of GHB, patients could become drowsy, fall asleep and may enter a coma. Although GHB had higher sedative effects at high doses as compared to Triazolam and Pentobarbital, it had less amnestic effects as compared to Triazolam and Pentobarbital. Arousal of subjects in the GHB group sometimes even required a painful stimulus, this was not seen in the Triazolam or the Pentobarbital group. Fortunately, during this heavy sedation with GHB the subjects maintained normal respiration and blood pressure. This is often not the case with opioids as they will cause respiratory depression.[4]


CNS depression is treated within a hospital setting by maintaining breathing and circulation. Individuals with reduced breathing may be given supplemental oxygen, while individuals who are not breathing can be ventilated with bag valve mask ventilation or by mechanical ventilation with a respirator. Sympathomimetic drugs may be used to attempt to stimulate cardiac output in order to maintain circulation. CNS Depression caused by certain drugs may respond to treatment with an antidote.

There are two antidotes that are frequently used in the hospital setting and these are Naloxone and Flumazenil. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist and reverses the central nervous depressive effects seen in opioid overdose. In the setting of a colonoscopy, Naloxone is rarely administered but when it is administered, its half life is shorter than some common opioid agonists. Therefore, the patient may still exhibit central nervous system depression after Naloxone has been cleared. Typically, Naloxone is administered in short intervals with relatively small doses in order to prevent the occurrence of withdrawal, pain, and sympathetic nervous system activation. Flumazenil is a benzodiazepine antagonists and blocks the binding of benzodiazepines to GABAa. Similarly to Naloxone, Flumazenil has a short half life, and this needs to be taken into account because the patient may exhibit central nervous depression after the antidote has been cleared. Benzodiazepines are used in the treatment of seizures and subsequently, the administration of Flumazenil may result in seizures. Therefore, slow administration of Flumazenil is necessary to prevent the occurrence of a seizure. These agents are rarely used in the setting of a colonoscopy as 98.8% of colonoscopies use sedatives but only 0.8% of them result in the administration of one of these antidotes. Even if they are rarely used in colonoscopies they are important in preventing the patient from entering a coma or developing respiratory depression when sedatives are not properly dosed. Outside of the colonoscopy setting, these agents are used for other procedures and in the case of drug overdose.[5]


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