This story, in today's Guardian, is just mind-blowing. The common sleeping pill zolpidem, sold in the US under the name Ambien, can reverse serious brain damage and wake up patients in persistent vegetative states!LinkThe hospital ward sister, Lucy Hughes, was periodically concerned that involuntary spasms in Louis's left arm, that resulted in him tearing at his mattress, might be a sign that deep inside he might be uncomfortable. In 1999, five years after Louis's accident, she suggested to Sienie that the family's GP, Dr Wally Nel, be asked to prescribe a sedative. Nel prescribed Stilnox, the brand name in South Africa for zolpidem. "I crushed it up and gave it to him in a bottle with a soft drink," Sienie recalls. "He couldn't swallow properly then, but I helped him and sat at his bedside. After about 25 minutes, I heard him making a sound like 'mmm'. He hadn't made a sound for five years.
"Then he turned his head in my direction. I said, 'Louis, can you hear me?' And he said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Say hello, Louis', and he said, 'Hello, mummy.' I couldn't believe it. I just cried and cried."
Zolpidem seems to work on PVS patients about 60% of the time, and is effective in the treatment of other brain injuries. Parts of the brain considered "dead" because of zero activity (but not deterioration or necrosis) return to life. It's not a cure -- the pill must be taken on an ongoing basis -- but it is a nearly-miraculous treatment.
As wonderful as this is, the legal and ethical implications are unsettling. Will people who have "pulled the plug" on loved ones in persistent vegetative states in recent years read this news with the horrible realization that the now-dead partner or relative might have been saved with a $5 pill? Could a lawyer for family members opposed to the termination of care for a PVS patient sue the family members who chose to do so, and win?
Trials are set to begin in the next few months in South Africa. The original discover of zolpidem, Sanofi-Aventis, has chosen *not* to participate -- no doubt because the drug is no longer controlled by a patent.
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