Benzodiazepines are a group of anticonvulsant therapies, some of which are also used to treat anxiety.
Spinal muscle atrophy (SMA) is a serious heritable disorder characterized by the progressive loss of motor neurons, or nerve cells, that control the movement of muscles. This loss can cause painful muscle spasms or cramps. Benzodiazepines are sometimes prescribed to treat this symptom and improve patients’ quality of life.
How benzodiazepines work
Nerve cells communicate with each other via electrical signals. To move a muscle, nerve signals are sent from the brain to the muscle. The muscle receives this message and contracts, causing movement.
In SMA, a genetic mutation causes the nerve cells that control muscles to die. This means that inconsistent messages are sent from the brain to the muscles.
Moreover, the muscles that have already lost their nervous connection to the brain begin to atrophy, which causes irregularities in how the muscles respond to nerve signals. The combination of these factors leads to faulty nerve signaling, which can then cause muscle spasms or cramps.
Benzodiazepines enhance the effect of an inhibitory signaling molecule in the brain and nerve cells called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA decreases the excitability of nerve cells, which reduces the signal sent by nerve cells during normal signaling.
Benzodiazepines bind to a specific site on the receptor protein to which GABA also binds. This increases the inhibitory effect of GABA, reducing the severity and incidence of muscle spasms.
Benzodiazepines in SMA
Benzodiazepines can cause side effects including headaches, nausea, stomach pain, dizziness, and drowsiness. Benzodiazepines should not be combined with alcohol, since this can cause respiratory depression.
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