Many of you might have heard of the most prescribed sleeping aid in the world. It’s called Ambien. The generic version is called Zolpidem. Many of you might even be taking it. Though prescribed to people unable to shut their brain down to fall asleep, reports have surfaced that the drug can have the complete opposite effect in some people. It has been observed that it can rouse people into a zombie-like state and even remarkably, kick-start the brain as it nears death… at least temporarily.
When Ambien (from French drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis) was approved by the Food & Drug Administration in 1992, doctors hailed it as a dramatic improvement over previous sleep aids like Halcion, which had been linked to suicide and psychotic episodes and had been banned in many countries.
But Ambien has caused some pretty serious and bizarre side effects of its own in some people. They include sleepwalking, sleep-eating, and even sleep-driving. This has resulted in people sleep-driving while in an Ambien-stupor, causing accidents and being arrested for impaired driving. Class action lawsuits have followed, with lawyers calling plaintiff’s “Ambien Zombies.”
When Ambien was first introduced to the market, its fine print included warnings that sedative hypnotics can cause abnormal thinking, strange behavior, and hallucinations. Sleepwalking was referenced as a rare occurrence, afflicting less than 1 in 1,000 patients. The prescribing information made no mention of hundreds of unsettling reports from users who took Ambien before bed only to later learn that while in a sort of sleep trance, they’d raided their hotel minibars, ordered thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise online, made phone calls, or answered e-mail; that they awoke the next day with no recollection of their conduct, just the evidence in the form of wrappers strewn around their beds, invoices from strange websites, voice mails and texts from perplexed friends.
In the wake of the class action and more than a dozen officially reported incidents of sleep-driving, the FDA agreed to take action. In 2007, it mandated that there be stronger warnings in regards to sleep driving, and a clinical study was ordered. This study never happened. Although the FDA required a warning that Ambien may cause sleep-driving, it hasn’t compelled any studies or clinical trials to actually verify the link. And since the potential for sleep-driving is already disclosed in the fine print, the drug maker can’t be held legally accountable when it occurs.
But there is so much more to the Ambien story.
RAISING THE NEAR DEAD
The first report of a Zolpidem/Ambien awakening came from South Africa, in 1999. Three years earlier, Louis Viljoen, a child, fell into a coma after being hit by a truck. In his vegetative state, he would often claw at his mattress in the night. Doctors suspected that he might be suffering from insomnia, and prescribed Zolpidem. Twenty minutes after his mother ground up the pill and gave it to her son, he awoke, said “Hello Mummy” and was able to move his limbs and facial muscles. A few hours later, he became unresponsive again. But the next day, and for many days after that, Zolpidem revived him, a few hours at a time.
The doctors were astonished. As time passed his awakenings stretched from a few hours to entire days. Eventually, he no longer needed Zolpidem.
Other incidents from around the world began to be reported about this paradoxical effect of the drug. Ambien and Zolpidem didn’t work for everyone, but when it did, it often had profound effects.
These awakenings occur, despite the state the brain is in. If the patient has had severe brain damage, they awake, and are still brain damaged. It is as if the drug just kick-starts consciousness, turning on a brain that otherwise should no longer be working.
One can only imagine a future variation of this drug on a completely dead patient. And that’s where it would get really interesting and more than a little bit frightening.