A theory of benzodiazepine dependence that can explain whether flumazenil will enhance or reverse the phenomena

S E File, P K Hitchcott

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticlepeer-review


Repeated administration of benzodiazepines (BDZs) produces dependence in man and animals and this is reflected in the phenomena of tolerance and withdrawal responses. In BDZ-dependent animals the BDZ-receptor antagonist flumazenil (Ro 15-1788) reverses the increased anxiety and decreased seizure threshold seen when benzodiazepine treatment is withdrawn. In contrast are reports that flumaenil enhances BDZ-withdrawal responses. Indirect influences on the direction of flumazenil's effects on anxiety are the duration and dose of BDZ treatment, whether tolerance has developed to its anxiolytic effect and whether there is an anxiogenic response on drug withdrawal. However, we conclude that the crucial factor is the anxiety level of the animal: when this is high flumazenil becomes anxiolytic; when this is low flumazenil is anxiogenic. These bidirectional effects of flumazenil can be seen in drug-naive and BDZ-dependent animals. We propose a theory of benzodiazepine dependence that can account for anxiogenic responses on drug withdrawal and for flumazenil's bidirectional effects; central to this theory is the assumption that flumazenil normalises the benzodiazepine receptor, returning it to a baseline state. Thus it is whether an animal's score lies above or below this baseline that will determine the direction of flumazenil's effect. The clinical implications of this theory are discussed. We suggest that during the development of benzodiazepine dependence, two independent adaptive biochemical mechanisms are triggered: one underlying the development of tolerance to the anxiolytic responses, the other underlying the incidence of increased anxiety on drug withdrawal. It is only changes in the latter that are induced by the administration of flumazenil.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)525-532
Number of pages8
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Aug 1990
Externally publishedYes


  • Animals
  • Anti-Anxiety Agents/pharmacology
  • Anxiety/psychology
  • Diazepam/pharmacology
  • Flumazenil/pharmacology
  • Male
  • Rats
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome/psychology
  • Substance-Related Disorders/psychology


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