How phenobarbital revolutionized epilepsy therapy: The story of phenobarbital therapy in epilepsy in the last 100 years


Address correspondence to Simon D. Shorvon, UCL Institute of Neurology, Queen Square, London WC1N 3BG, U.K. E-mail:


Phenobarbital (phenobarbitone) was first used as an antiepileptic drug 100 years ago, in 1912. This article tells the story of the discovery of its antiepileptic action, its early development, and the subsequent course of its clinical use over the 100-year period. The side effects, pharmacokinetics, and misuse of barbiturates are considered, along with the more recent clinical trials and the drug’s current clinical utilization. The introduction of controlled drug regulations, the comparative cost of phenobarbital, and its inclusion on the World Health Organization (WHO) essential drug list are discussed. It is one of the few drugs on the formulary in 1912 that is still listed today, and remarkably its efficacy in epilepsy has not been significantly bettered. The current recommendation by the WHO is that phenobarbital should be offered as the first option for therapy for convulsive epilepsy in adults and children if availability can be ensured. This is rated as a strong recommendation because of the proven efficacy and low cost of phenobarbital, and despite its perceived side-effect profile and the practical problems of access. Whether this recommendation puts “a hierarchy on the brain,” as has been suggested, is arguable. Much still needs to be learned about the drug’s effects, and the issues raised by phenobarbital have lessons for all antiepileptic drug therapy.