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Taking Ambien: What's all the commotion?

NBC News special correspondent Tom Brokaw was hospitalized in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday morning after accidentally taking Ambien.

Brokaw, who has since been discharged in "great health," according to NBC News President Steve Capus, checked into the hospital after reportedly feeling light-headed on the set of MSNBC's "Morning Joe.".

Soothing fans' concerns, he tweeted his condition from the hospital Thursday morning: "All is well Early AM I mistakenly took a half dose of Ambien and made less sense than usual. Made a better comeback than Giants..."

So, chemically, how did the sleeping pill cause so much commotion?

Ambien, a brand name for the prescription medication zolpidem, is most often used as a short-term treatment for insomnia. It works by enhancing the effects of GABA, a neurotransmitter that slows down the central nervous system.

By reducing activity in certain parts of the brain, Ambien allows a person to fall asleep more easily, but not surprisingly, the decrease in neuronal activity can also have other cognitive effects. According to the Mayo Clinic, along with Brokaw's reported light-headedness, some of the drug's less common side effects include confusion about identity, place or time, and a feeling of unreality.

Brokaw, who is 72, may have been more prone to the cognitive impacts of Ambien due to his age. A 2005 study conducted by scientists at the University of Toronto concluded that, for people over 60, the potential benefits of zolpidem may be outweighed by an increased risk for adverse cognitive effects and falls. 

 

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