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A Sleeping Pill As a Stroke Aid?

French case suggests the unusual possibility

THURSDAY, Feb. 26, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Could a sleeping pill help stroke patients?

In a new report, French researchers say a woman who took the insomnia drug Ambien recovered some of the speech abilities she had lost earlier after having suffered a stroke. When she stopped taking the drug, her speech problems returned.

The woman's recovery may be a fluke, but the scientists hope the drug could help some stroke patients. And an American neurologist says there's a small chance the case could boost knowledge about the brain.

According to the report in the Feb. 26 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, the 52-year-old woman suffered a stroke that left her unable to form complete words and limited her speech comprehension. Aphasia, the inability to speak properly and fully comprehend language, commonly affects patients after strokes disrupt the circuitry of their brain.

Three years after her stroke, the woman developed sleep problems and took a 10-milligram dose of the prescription sleeping pill Ambien, also known as zolpidem. "To the amazement of the patient and her family, ingestion of the first dose was followed by a dramatic improvement in her speech, which persisted until the patient went to bed later that night," the report says.

The next morning, the woman's speech difficulties returned. But future tests found that doses of Ambien continued to improve her speaking abilities about 20 minutes after she took the drug. And, luckily, the drug didn't make her fall asleep.

Brain tests showed the drug boosted blood circulation to several parts of the brain by 35 percent to 40 percent. Strokes, by contrast, disrupt blood flow and can starve the brain of oxygen.

This isn't the first time Ambien, technically a depressant, has done more than help patients sleep. In 1997, doctors reported that a catatonic patient, unable to speak or gesture, temporarily recovered with the help of the drug.

The possibility of a new benefit of Ambien came as a surprise to its manufacturer, Sanofi-Synthelabo Inc. "This has never been explored clinically, so we don't know if this is a reality or not," says company spokeswoman Joelle Sissmann. "Therefore we don't have much comment."

Sanofi-Synthelabo has sold an estimated 10 billion Ambien pills. The drug has become popular because it allows patients to enjoy a good night's sleep and awaken feeling refreshed, Sissmann says.

What's next? Dr. James Grisolia, a neurologist at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, isn't sure. "This could lead the way to a better understanding of nerve circuits underlying speech, but it could also fizzle away as most interesting case reports do," he says.

More information

Get more details on aphasia from the National Aphasia Association and the Academy of Aphasia.

SOURCES: Joelle Sissmann, spokeswoman, Sanofi-Synthelabo Inc., New York City; James Grisolia, M.D., neurologist, Scripps Mercy Hospital, San Diego; Feb. 26, 2004, New England Journal of Medicine
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