GHB Approved to Treat Symptom of Narcolepsy
Clinical studies show cataplexy is reduced by 70%

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
July 25, 2002

The illegal drug gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), commonly known as a date-rape drug, has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for treating a symptom of the sleep disorder narcolepsy. GHB has been blamed for more than 50 deaths and about 5,700 overdoses since 1990, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency.

The main symptom of narcolepsy is that people fall asleep without warning. GHB will not help with this feature of narcolepsy, but it does seem to prevent another common symptom called cataplexy. Cataplexy occurs when the large muscles in the body weaken and people suddenly collapse. Approximately 20,000-50,000 people with narcolepsy experience this muscle weakness. GHB, a central nervous system depressant, appears to reduce cataplexy attacks by about 70%, as shown by two clinical studies. A liquid form of GHB is the first drug to be approved for the treatment of cataplexy.

Unfortunately, GHB has serious side effects such as difficulty breathing while asleep, vomiting, dizziness, confusion, depression, and loss of consciousness. It is this last effect that gave GHB the reputation as a date-rape drug. GHB is especially dangerous if used along with alcohol or other central nervous system depressants.

GHB is classified as a Schedule III controlled substance, and many safeguards are being put in place to keep GHB from being abused. For example, the FDA will maintain a registry of doctors who prescribe GHB and will track the prescriptions. Furthermore, the drug will be sent from one pharmacy and shipped so that the receiving person has to sign for the drug. It is hoped that this tightly regulated distribution of the drug will safeguard against the drug being abused.

Did you know?
Narcolepsy affects approximately 120,000 people in the US. Of those people with narcolepsy, 60-90% experience attacks of cataplexy.


  • Associated Press article by Lauren Neergaard, July 18, 2002.

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