A casket containing the body of Whitney Houston is lifted into a gold hearse from The New Hope Baptist Church at the Funeral of Whitney Houston in Newark, N.J., Feb. 18, 2012. UPI/John Angelillo | License Photo
ATLANTA, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- It will likely take weeks to determine the cause of music icon Whitney Houston's death, but a U.S. psychiatrist says Xanax might have been a factor.
An autopsy was performed on Houston Feb. 12, one day after she died at age 48 in her Beverly Hills, Calif., hotel room
Dr. Sarah Y. Vinson, founder and chief editor of the psychoeducational Web site BlackMentalHealthNet.com, said toxicology reports will be needed for definitive answers to the cause of Houston's death, but Xanax -- whose generic name is alprazolam -- was seen in her room, and witnesses said they'd seen Houston consuming alcohol in the days before she died, multiple news reports said.
Xanax is a prescription medication for anxiety disorders -- some outlets have incorrectly reported that it is an antidepressant -- and it works by acting on GABA receptors, the "brakes" of the brain.
It is part of the benzodiazepine class of medications and is in a larger group of medications commonly referred to as "downers" or "sedatives," Vinson explained.
Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from treatment with these drugs, but benzodiazepines have the potential to become addictive and can be abused, Vinson said.
"There are other kinds of medication for anxiety that affect the brain differently than Xanax and the other benzodiazepines," Vinson said in a statement.
Benzodiazepines like Xanax can put the brakes on the brain too much, particularly the part of the brain that controls breathing, Vinson said.
"When too high a dose of these medications is used, especially if they are combined with other substances that affect breathing -- such as alcohol -- breathing can become too slow or shallow or even stop completely," Vinson said.