Sleeping tablet may bring people back from a coma

It was a long held belief amongst doctors that those patients who remained in comas for weeks or more following a brain injury were never likely to regain consciousness. Recent research has shown, however, that consciousness isn’t actually a binary state of being awake or not, but is a spectrum.

While some patients who have suffered brain injuries are in their vegetative state, with no conscious awareness at all, others are classed as being in a minimally conscious state, still partially aware of their surroundings and able to respond to it at times.

For onlookers, it can be hard to tell the difference between the two, but thanks to new methods such as EEG machines, to pick up on subtle brain wave differences, clinicians are now better able to gauge the patients’ consciousness levels.

From the previously unknown hinterlands of consciousness has come another mysterious and astounding discovery; Ambien, a sleep prescription medication and Zolpdem, its generic form, can actually help those minimally conscious patients to wake up. Jeneen Interlandi, the renowned freelance science writer, delved deeper into this paradoxical treatment in the New York Times Magazine.

She wrote that the first report of an awakening brought about by Zolpidem was in 1999, in South Africa. This patient, Louis Viljoen, had been declared as being vegetative 3 years previously after being hit by a truck. It started with him clawing at his mattress through the night; the family doctor misdiagnosed insomnia and prescribed Zolpidem to keep him asleep through the night.

Only 20 minutes after the tablet had been ground up and fed to him through a straw by his mother, Viljoen started to stir. His eyes, which usually wandered the room vacant and unable to focus, flickered in the light of consciousness. He then spoke, uttering the words ‘Hello Mummy’ and moved, controlling his facial muscles and limbs.

After a few hours he again fell into the unresponsive state he has existed in for the previous 3 years, but the next day, and for many more days after that, Zolpidem continued to revive him for a few hours at a time.