To help sleep ... or sleepwalk

Could Ambien cause sleep-driving?

A Decatur man came to attorney William Head last fall with an unusual case: He claimed he sleepwalked to his car and then was arrested for reckless driving. He said he didn't remember anything about the incident. But he believed it was caused by the prescription sleeping pill Ambien.

The man (whose name CL is withholding because the man fears possible retaliation by his employers) told Head that on the night of Oct. 6, he drank three beers and climbed into bed. When he couldn't sleep, he checked to see if his roommate had any sleeping pills. He found Ambien, and popped two 10-milligram pills — double the recommended dose — before crawling back into bed.

The man claims to have zero recollection of what happened next — including getting behind the wheel of his Toyota Camry.

According to a city of Decatur incident report, police followed the man at 1 a.m. as he drove 10 to 20 mph down Commerce Drive and East Ponce de Leon Avenue, often crossing into the wrong lane. The report notes, "On at least three occasions, the car would drift to the right and each time barely avoid striking a fixed object ... utility poles and trees." It also states that "two vehicles ... had to abruptly swerve to the right to avoid a head-on collision with the car."

When the man finally stopped the car, he was arrested for, among other things, DUI and reckless driving. The report notes that "the driver appeared disoriented and incoherent" and that the officer "could smell a strong odor of alcoholic beverage." It also states that he refused a breath test.

The man's experience is one of dozens — if not hundreds — of cases in which Ambien is alleged to have caused driving while sleepwalking. Last month, a New York Times article cited 78 such cases in a single year in Washington state alone.

Ambien's active ingredient, zolpidem, helps decrease the electrical activity in brain cells. And the drug, which approximately 26 million people use, has been targeted as a factor in several bizarre incidents. Last summer, a man arrested on a flight from Charlotte to London claimed that Ambien had caused him to tear off his shirt and threaten to kill himself and other passengers. Researchers in Minnesota are currently studying an unusual sleep-eating side effect, where Ambien users claim to have ripped apart their refrigerator while sleeping and don't remember their binge the next morning. And like Head's client, there are those who have claimed Ambien caused them to climb into their car without meaning to.

"This drug is a sedative-hypnotic," says Head, who specializes in impaired-driving cases. "It puts people in a zombie-like state and they have no recollection of what happened to them or where they are."

Head is trying to convince a Decatur Municipal Court judge that Ambien — not the beers his client drank — caused his client to sleepwalk, and then sleep-drive.

In response to such allegations, Sanofi-Aventis, the company that manufactures Ambien, released a statement that called the sleepwalking reports "rare occurrences." The company estimates that 4 percent of Ambien users sleepwalk, and claims patients who experience sleep disorders have an increased inclination to experience such side effects.

"[T]hese instances cannot be systematically linked to the product," the statement says.

Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1993, Ambien — which usually is taken in doses of 5 to 10 milligrams — often carries warning labels such as "May cause drowsiness" and "Do not drink alcoholic beverages when taking this medication."

Head and other attorneys contend that the drug should carry warnings that it may cause amnesia, hallucinations and sleepwalking. According to Sanofi-Aventis, common Ambien side effects include drowsiness, dizziness and diarrhea. According to the New York Times article, Sanofi-Aventis is providing the FDA with reports of people sleepwalking and then driving.

The FDA did not return CL's phone calls by press time.

"This is a new phenomenon," Head says. "People need to be aware of what this drug could do."

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