Zolpidem is a prescription medication used for the short-term treatment of insomnia, as well as some brain disorders. It is a short-acting nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic that potentiates gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter, by binding to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABAA) receptors at the same location as benzodiazepines. It works quickly (usually within 15 minutes) and has a short half-life (2–3 hours). Some trade names of zolpidem are: Ambien, Hypnogen, Ivadal, Myslee, Nimadorm, Nitrest, Sanval, Somit, Stella, Stilnoct, Stilnox, Zoldem, Zodorm, Zolfresh, and Zolt.
Its hypnotic effects are similar to those of the benzodiazepine class of drugs, but it is molecularly distinct from the classical benzodiazepine molecule and is classified as an imidazopyridine. Flumazenil, a benzodiazepine receptor antagonist, which is used for benzodiazepine overdose, can also reverse zolpidem's sedative/hypnotic effects.
As an anticonvulsant and muscle relaxant, the beneficial effects start to emerge at 10 and 20 times the dose required for sedation, respectively. For that reason, it has never been approved for either muscle relaxation or seizure prevention. Such drastically increased doses are more inclined to induce one or more negative side-effects, including hallucinations and/or amnesia. (See below.)
The patent 4382938 in the United States on zolpidem was held by the French pharmaceutical corporation Sanofi-Aventis. On April 23, 2007 the U.S. FDA approved 13 generic versions of zolpidem tartrate. Zolpidem is available from several generic manufacturers in the UK, as a generic from Sandoz in South Africa, as well as from other manufacturers such as Ratiopharm.
Recently, zolpidem has been cited in various medical reports mainly in the United Kingdom as waking persistent vegetative state (PVS) patients, and dramatically improving the conditions of people with brain injuries.
The United States Air Force uses zolpidem as a substitute for temazepam, under trade name Ambien, as "no-go pills" to help pilots sleep after a mission; the main drug used for the purpose is temazepam (Normison/Restoril). (Cf. the "go-pills" dextroamphetamine, served under the name Dexedrine, or its recent modafinil (Provigil) replacement, act as a stimulant for the same pilots, the effects of which are reversed by the aforementioned "no-go pills")
Zolpidem is also used off-label to treat restless leg syndrome, and, as is the case with many prescription sedative/hypnotic drugs, it is sometimes used by stimulant users to "come down" after the use of stimulants such as amphetamines (including methamphetamine), cocaine, and MDMA (ecstasy).
Recently, the drug has been reported anecdotally to have positive effects for patients in persistent vegetative state. Results from phase IIa trials are expected in June 2007. The trials are being conducted by Regen Therapeutics of the UK, who have a patent pending on this new use for Zolpidem.
A clinical trial on a single patient performed at the Toulouse University Hospital using PET shows that zolpidem repeatably improves brain function and mobility of a patient immobilized by akinetic mutism caused by hypoxia.
Like the vast majority of benzodiazepine-like molecules, zolpidem has no affinity for α4 and α6 subunit-containing receptors. Zolpidem positively modulates GABAA receptors, probably by increasing the GABAa receptor complexes apparent affinity for GABA, without affecting desensitization or peak current. Zolpidem increases slow wave sleep and caused no effect on stage 2 sleep in laboratory tests.
A meta-analysis of the randomised controlled clinical trials that compared benzodiazepines against Z drugs has shown that there are few consistent differences between zolpidem and benzodiazepines in terms of sleep onset latency, total sleep duration, number of awakenings, quality of sleep, adverse events, tolerance, rebound insomnia, and daytime alertness.
In the U.S., recreational use of this drug is becoming more common in young people. Recreational users claim that "fighting" the effects of the drug by forcing themselves to stay awake will sometimes cause vivid visuals and a body high (see side-effects below). However, others who are already in an anxious state, claim it is not hard to fight the main effect of sedation, experiencing the side-effect of euphoria more than the sedation itself. Thus, some users report decreased anxiety, and even mild euphoria, as well as perceptual changes, visual distortions, and light-based hallucinations. It is also not uncommon for one that has developed a tolerance to the drug to eventually feel such a decrease in the sedation effect that only the euphoric, perceptual, and anxiety decreasing side-effects remain.
With regular use at high dosage, there can be a risk of a severe physical dependence on zolpidem, with cases being reported in the medical literature of epileptic seizures forming part of the withdrawal syndrome. One case involved a woman detoxing off a high dose of zolpidem experiencing a generalized seizure. The clinical withdrawal and dependence effects were reported to be similar to those of benzodiazepines in this case report.
Zolpidem and other sedative hypnotic drugs are detected frequently in cases of people suspected of driving under the influence of drugs. Other drugs including the benzodiazepines and zopiclone are also found in high numbers of suspected drugged drivers. Many drivers have blood levels far exceeding the therapeutic dose range suggesting a high degree of excessive-use potential for benzodiazepines, zolpidem and zopiclone.
As Ambien's patent expired April 21, 2007, new generic versions were approved, which do not have the "protective cover" present on the Sanofi name-brand Ambien they once previously had to prevent users from crushing, snorting, or injecting the drugs.
Long term use of Ambien (or its time-release formula, Ambien CR) may require a dose adjustment. This adjustment helps those using Ambien to minimize or eliminate withdraw effects such as racing thoughts and nightmares that can frequently be associated with discontinuing the medication.
An extensive review of the medical literature regarding the management of insomnia and the elderly found that there is considerable evidence of the effectiveness and durability of non-drug treatments for insomnia in adults of all ages and that these interventions are underutilized. Compared with the benzodiazepines, the nonbenzodiazepine (including zolpidem) sedative-hypnotics appeared to offer few, if any, significant clinical advantages in efficacy or tolerability in elderly persons. It was found that newer agents with novel mechanisms of action and improved safety profiles, such as the melatonin agonists, hold promise for the management of chronic insomnia in elderly people. Long-term use of sedative-hypnotics for insomnia lacks an evidence base and has traditionally been discouraged for reasons that include concerns about such potential adverse drug effects as cognitive impairment (anterograde amnesia), daytime sedation, motor incoordination, and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents and falls. In addition, the effectiveness and safety of long-term use of these agents remain to be determined. It was concluded that more research is needed to evaluate the long-term effects of treatment and the most appropriate management strategy for elderly persons with chronic insomnia.
Side-effects at any dose may include:
Some users take zolpidem recreationally for these side-effects. However, the abuse of zolpidem may be less common than benzodiazepine abuse. In the United States, recreational use may be less common than in countries where the drug is available as a less-expensive generic (or in countries, such as the UK, where prescriptions are free or heavily subsidised). It is not yet known whether there is a link between the cost and availability of zolpidem and the level at which it is abused. Zolpidem can become addictive if taken for extended periods of time, due to dependence on its ability to put one to sleep or to the euphoria it can sometimes produce. As with most addictive drugs, a tolerance in the zolpidem user develops and increases all the more quickly the longer the user has been regularly taking it. Under the influence of the drug, it is common for one to take more zolpidem than is necessary, due to either forgetting that one has already taken a pill (elderly users are particularly at risk here) or knowingly taking more than the prescribed dosage. Users with a predilection for abuse are advised to keep additional zolpidem in a safe place that is unlikely to be remembered or accessed while intoxicated to avoid this risk. A trustworthy friend or relative is the best defense if such people are available; otherwise, a box or cupboard locked with a combination padlock is a good defense against this tendency, as the above-mentioned side-effects can easily prevent a user from operating such a lock while under the drug's influence. The recent release of Ambien CR (zolpidem tartrate extended release) in the United States renewed interest in the drug among recreational drug users.
Before a user becomes fully acclimated to these effects (or if the user does not become acclimated), these symptoms can be severe enough to be deemed as drug-induced psychosis. Incidentally, antipsychotics like ziprasidone (Geodon) or quetiapine (Seroquel) may be prescribed alongside zolpidem to both combat these side effects and to aid in sleep-induction, as both of them contain mild hypnotic properties. However, because some antidepressants are known for being mildly sedating (i.e., paroxetine), it may be inadvisable to use zolpidem and an antidepressant simultaneously. Some zolpidem users (especially those suffering from chronic insomnia), however, commonly use these drug combination due to the relative ease with which the user gains no benefit from one or the others of these drugs, while both together can assist sufferers of insomnia in getting to sleep.
Some users have reported unexplained sleepwalking while using zolpidem, and a few have reported driving, binge eating, sleep talking, and performing other daily tasks while sleeping. The sleepwalker can sometimes perform these tasks as normally as they might if they were awake. They can sometimes carry on complex conversations and respond appropriately to questions or statements so much so that the observer may believe the sleepwalker to be awake. This is similar to, but unlike, typical sleep talking, which can usually be identified easily and is characterised by incoherent speech that often has no relevance to the situation or that is so disorganised as to be completely unintelligible. These effects make a strong suggestion to schizophasia, one of many symptoms commonly seen in individuals suffering from schizophrenia. A person under the influence of this medication may seem fully aware of his environment even though he is still asleep. This can bring about concerns for the safety of the sleepwalker and others. These side-effects may be related to the mechanism that also causes zolpidem to bring some semi-comatose people back to consciousness.
Driving while under the drug's influence is generally considered several orders of magnitude more dangerous than the average drunk driver, due to the diminished motor controls and delusions that may affect the user. It is unclear whether the drug is responsible for the behavior, but a class-action lawsuit was filed against Sanofi-Aventis in March 2006 on behalf of those that reported symptoms. Residual 'hangover' effects such as sleepiness, impaired psychomotor and cognitive after nighttime administration may persist into the next day which may impair the ability of users to drive safely, increase risks of falls and hip fractures.
More recently, the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia reported on 4 March 2007 that a man who fell 30 meters to his death from a high-rise unit balcony may have been sleepwalking under the influence of Stilnox. The coverage prompted over 40 readers to contact the newspaper with their own accounts of Stilnox-related automatism, and the drug is now under review by the Adverse Drug Reactions Advisory Committee.
On 6 April 2007, Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration ordered the manufacturer to upgrade its warning about mixing the pills with alcohol. There are also plans to move the drug to a tougher class of medicines (Schedule 8 status) in Australia because of its susceptibility to abuse and addiction. This would place the drug in the same class as opioids (eg. morphine), psychostimulants (eg. methylphenidate, dexamphetamine), and flunitrazepam (Rohypnol, Hypnodorm).
There are many unsubstantiated reports on the internet of people who have had issues with this medication.
On March 14, 2007, the US Food and Drug Administration ordered stronger warnings on 13 prescription sleep-hypnotic drugs including zolpidem and eszopiclone. The dangers of allergic reactions and driving while intoxicated, while serious, are not thought to be sufficient to withdraw the drugs from the market.
In April 2007, Slovenian serial killer Silvo Plut committed suicide by consuming a large quantity of zolpidem, sold under the brandname Sanval.
The media reports of side-effects of zolpidem have caused them to become referred to in popular culture. In the Simpsons episode Crook and Ladder, Homer Simpson becomes addicted to an insomnia pill known as Nappien and starts experiencing strange side-effects. To this, Lisa Simpson says "I've read that people do strange things in their sleep when they've taken Ambien... I mean Nappien."
Actor Heath Ledger was taking Ambien in the weeks prior to his death on 22 January 2008. In addition, early reports state that a bottle of Ambien was found near his body. The drug has been the subject of much controversy in his native Australia, where it is available as Stilnox brand.
Comedian Chelsea Handler, in her opening skit made a reference to Ambien by saying that average Americans are getting less sleep than the typical 8 hours. She remarked that she doesn't wake up until 10 AM, receive nearly 10 hours of sleep. She then said "Hats off to Ambien."
Janene Johns, a mother with no previous criminal record, was sentenced to six years in the California State Prison system for causing a fatal accident while under the influence of prescribed Ambien in 2006.