Ambien Gives Hope to Coma Patients

ByABC News via logo
July 5, 2006, 7:28 AM

July 12, 2006— -- George Melendez was a driven young man with a passion for baseball and played on his college's varsity team. His life came to a standstill during his junior year in 1998 when his parents learned that he may never play ball again.

"We got the call at 4 o'clock in the morning from the hospital telling me my son was on life support," said Melendez's mother Pat Flores.

Melendez was in a devastating car wreck which resulted in a severe brain injury -- which reduced him to barely more than a vegetable.

Today, eight years later, he has full time care at home and cannot walk, or feed himself. There is no cure for this kind of brain damage.

Experts say that the prescription sleeping pill Ambien could if help reverse Melendez's state although the pill helps millions of Americans sleep at night, it actually helps Melendez become more alert. He can respond to his parents by either shaking his head yes or no and sometimes even speaks.

"I knew it was the medicine, the Ambien," Flores said.

Doctor Ralf Clauss has studied the effects of Ambien on just three patients -- including Melendez. He speculates that while brain injury may cause some parts of the brain to remain dormant, sometimes the drug may temporarily reverse this change

"We are seeing restoration of consciousness and restoration of function in our patients," Clauss said.

Dr Nicholas Schiff of Cornell Medical School studies brain injuries and has never seen this phenomenon and says that the finding is important.

"I'm not surprised to hear it," he said. "I think it's a piece with a lot of things that really deserve more attention and more study."

Doctors say that this side effect of Ambien is very rare -- many brain injured patients take Ambien and never see the same sort of wakening as Melendez. Still others say that it could be the brain healing itself that is causing this alertness, not the Ambien, but Flores thinks otherwise.

She received a prescription for her son in 2002 when his constant moaning prevented them both from sleeping at night. The surprise came 10 minutes after he received his first dose.