Ambien is the brand name for the hypnotic sleeping drug zolpidem, most commonly prescribed to help those with insomnia to fall asleep.
The name Ambien may ring a bell for you, especially if you follow celebrity news. A large number of famous individuals including May Roseanne Barr, Elon Musk, and Tiger Woods have put blame Ambien for some of their past rather unsavoury behaviour.
With some of zolpidem’s side effects being more serious (and probable) than posting racist tweets, such as falls, burns, and cuts while sleepwalking, concern over its use is completely understandable and justifiable.
However, aside from zolpidem’s most common use, there is great evidence showing potential therapeutic benefits for brain damage victims as well.
This newfound use of Ambient begins in 1994 when Louis Viljoen, a sporty 24-year-old switchboard operator, was hit by a truck while riding his bike in Springs, a small town 30 minutes' drive east of Johannesburg. He suffered severe brain injuries that left him in a deep coma. He was treated in various hospitals before being settled in the Ikaya Tinivorster rehabilitation centre nearby. Doctors expected him to die and told his mother that he would never regain consciousness.
The hospital ward sister was periodically concerned that involuntary spasms in Louis's left arm might be a sign that deep inside he might be uncomfortable. In 1999, five years after Louis's accident, she suggested to Louis’ mother that the family's GP, Dr Wally Nel, be asked to prescribe a sedative. Nel prescribed Stilnox, the brand name in South Africa for zolpidem.
Louis’ mother crushed up the sedative and added it to a soft drink and helped him drink it. Within 25 minutes Louis miraculously regained consciousness and the ability to speak.
Louis’ mother informed medical staff of his improved condition. They gathered around Louis and, much to their disbelief, they saw first-hand Louis’ improved state.
Louis has now been given Stilnox every day for seven years. Although the effects of the drug are supposed to wear off after about two and a quarter hours, and zolpidem's power as a sedative means it cannot simply be taken every time a patient slips out of consciousness, his improvement continues as if long-dormant pathways in his brain are coming back to life.
Another incredible example of zolpidem’s near magic effects is the case of American voice actor going by the pseudonym Tom Cassidy.
Following a wisdom tooth removed in 2009, Cassidy’s speech began to slur.
By July 2010 his voice was so impaired that he could no longer do voice-over work, and in fact could barely speak. His lips and part of his tongue had became almost completely numb.
Cassidy began taking Ambien for sleeplessness and, one night stayed up late to watch TV with his girlfriend. When Cassidy started speaking to his girlfriend, he realised that his speech had returned to normal.
Cassidy still takes Ambien daily to help with his speech. Though having to fight off a strong urge to sleep while under the effects of the drug, the difference is dramatic and completely worth the struggle. You can find video’s of Cassidy’s speech before and after taking Ambien online, which he posted himself.
While more research is needed to know exactly how zolpidem helps those with neurological injuries regain lost function, it is theorised that zolpidem helps these conditions by ‘opening up’ nerve pathways which have become obstructed by chloride ions as a result of the injury.