Ambien is an FDA-approved medication that can put an insomniac to sleep in a matter of minutes at night. But when taken during the day, the little pill can cause slurred speech, blurred cognition and erratic behavior.
Zolpidem, a generic version of the drug, has now been implicated in a car crash two weeks ago, when Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, swerved into a tractor-trailer on New York's Route 684 and kept driving. Witnesses said she had been weaving in and out of lanes for miles before the accident.
Toxicology reports showed 14 nanograms per milliliter of zolpidem in Kennedy's blood, according to the Associated Press. Both her blood and urine samples were negative for alcohol or other drugs.
"Ambien is a very bizarre drug," said Paul L. Doering, co-director of the Drug Information and Pharmacy Resource Center at the University of Florida. "It is only supposed to be taken as directed and is not intended to be taken during the day unless you are a shift worker.
"There is the sedative effect itself," said Doering. "You can be groggy, with slurred speech and not all there. That's why they call them sleeping meds."
And, when taken during the daytime, there is also a high risk for abuse, he said.
Kennedy, 52, is the seventh of the 11 children of Robert F. Kennedy and the ex-wife of New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She is a human rights activist and mother of three.
Police found Kennedy slumped in her white Lexus on the morning of July 13, according to Reuters. She was unsteady on her feet and slurring her words. Initially she told police she may have accidentally taken the sleeping aid earlier that day, mistaking it for her thyroid medication.
At a court appearance July 17, she pleaded not guilty to a charge of drunk driving and said the hospital where she was treated found no trace of drugs and doctors had suspected a brain seizure. She is due back in court Aug. 14.
In 2006, her cousin Patrick Kennedy, the former congressman from Rhode Island and the son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, was sent to alcohol and drug rehab, after crashing his car while on Ambien in Washington, D.C.
Ambien, or its generic cousin zolpidem, is a sedative-hypnotic that works by slowing activity in the brain, according to the National Institutes of Health. It is prescribed for those who have difficulty falling or staying asleep. It's meant to be taken immediately before bedtime and its effects last about seven to eight hours.
Sometimes patients can experience memory problems on awakening. Some have reportedly taken Ambien, left their bed and driven cars, prepared and eaten food, had sex or made phone calls while under the influence of the drug and not fully awake, according to theFood and Drug Administration.
The drug has a risk for anterior-grade amnesia, as well, according to Doering. "Memory never burns from RAM to ROM."
"The things that happen to a driver can be very scary," he said. "You are in a state where you are dreaming, but you are not quite sure whether you are awake or dreaming."