Ambien leads to hope, but not cure for thousands of patients - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

Ambien leads to hope, but not cure for thousands of patients

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Dr. Lori Grafton Dr. Lori Grafton

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – About a third of people who suffer a severe brain injury do not survive. Of those that do, they are either drifting in and out of consciousness or in a complete coma and their future is mostly uncertain. But for some, a medication given for an unintended use is opening patients, doctors and researcher's eyes.

Whether they are victims of accidents, falls, violence or other forms of trauma there are roughly 300,000 people in the United States trapped in a vegetative or minimally conscious state, their mind, shrouded beneath the shell of a rigid body, drifting in a realm that even many medical professionals believe can't be reached.

Director of the Brain Injury Program at Carolinas Rehabilitation Dr. Lori Grafton said, "The doctors say, 'Oh you're not going to make it,' and they make it. Then they come to rehab and the families say, 'OK what do we do now?'"

If those patients have a physiatrist, like Dr. Grafton, the answer may be a dose of Ambien.

The pharmaceutical drug designed to help you sleep by lowering brain activity has shown in some cases to have the unexplained effect of waking up victims of brain trauma from the deepest depths of their consciousness.

"It's rare. It's not something that works all the time, but from my standpoint it's worth a try. Especially for these patients where nothing else has worked," said Dr. Grafton.

One such patient was George Melendez. Melendez was nearly dead when he was pulled from his wrecked car. He was barely conscious until he was given Zolpidem, the active ingredient in Ambien.

Soon he opened his eyes and started asking questions.

Dr. Grafton said she has seen patients like this with her own eyes.

"It's not like they stand up from their wheelchairs and walk," she said, "it's been more their ability to communicate or understand."

These cases are casually called "Ambien awakenings." Unfortunately, they are not a cure for the estimated one in 15 patients who respond to the medication.

After a few hours the drug wears off and they slip back into oblivion until the next dose.

"It puts us in a very challenging position, especially after I see patients with severe brain injury because we don't want to give false hope," said Dr. Grafton. "There are so many things we don't know."

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people quietly wait for that moment of contact.

We contacted Ambien's manufacturer, Sanofi U.S., and asked for their thoughts on the drugs unexpected side effect.

The company told us the Food and Drug Administration does not allow them to comment on any unintended use of their pharmaceutical products.

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