About a third of all people who suffer from severe brain injury, do not survive. For those who do, they either drift in and out of consciousness, or are in a complete coma. Their future is mostly uncertain.
Many families are told there is no hope because there is no treatment proven to speed up or improve recovery.
For some patients, however, a medication given for an unintended use, is opening the eyes of patients, doctors and researchers.
There are nearly 300,000 people in the United States who are trapped in a vegetative or minimally-conscious state as a result of an accident, fall, violence, or some other type of brain trauma.
Their mind is shrouded beneath the shell of a rigid body, drifting in a realm that even many medical professionals believe can't be reached.
Dr. Lori Grafton is the director of the Brain Injury Program at Carolinas Rehabilitation, one of the nation's most comprehensive rehabilitation facilities in the country.
Grafton is physiatrist which is a medical doctor with specialized training in physical medicine, rehabilitation and pain medicine. She says a dose of Ambien may be the solution for some brain trauma patients.
Ambien is a pharmaceutical drug designed to help an individual sleep by lowering brain activity, but in some cases, it has the unexplained effect of waking up victims of brain trauma from the deepest depths of their consciousness.
The exact mechanism is still a mystery.
"It's rare, it's not something that works all the time, but from my standpoint, it's worth a try, especially for these patients where nothing else has worked," Grafton said.
George Melendez was close to dying when he was rescued from a wrecked car. He was barely conscious until he was given zolpidem, the active ingredient in Ambien. When Melendez opened his eyes, he started asking questions.
Grafton says she has observed similar incidents with her own patients.
"It's not like they stand up from their wheelchairs and walk," Grafton said. "It's been more their ability to communicate or understand."
Ambien Awakenings, as they are called, are not a cure because only an estimated one in 15 patients actually respond to the medication.
After a few hours, the drug wears off and they slip back into oblivion until the next dose.
"It puts us in a very challenging position, especially after I see patients with severe brain injury because we don't want to give false hope, there are so many things we don't know," Grafton said.
Ambien now has generic options which largely deflates any profits to be made off breakthrough research.
"It takes millions, if not billions of dollars, to bring a drug to market," McKee said. "So, you're not going to see a lot of research dollars invested when the economic return is just not going to be there."
If you do have a loved one who is a brain injury patient, be sure to ask their doctor to explore experimental options like Ambien, or to refer you to a rehabilitation clinic that may be able to help.
We contacted Ambien's manufacturer, Sanofi U.S., for their opinion on the drug's unexpected side effect. The company told us the Food and Drug Administration does not allow them to comment an any unintended use of their pharmaceutical products.
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