People who take Ambien to combat insomnia may get more than a good night’s sleep. They might be a tad sharper than usual the next day, according to a new study.
The study found that taking the sleeping pill enhances the brain’s ability to consolidate memories, or move information from short-term to long-term storage. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, also has confirmed the mechanism that allows the brain to lay down memories.
The researchers hope this discovery will lead to new therapies that will improve memory for aging adults and those with dementia, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.
Prior research has found so-called “sleep spindles,” bursts of brain activity that occur during a certain phase of sleep, play an important role in creating and solidifying memories.
“Sleep spindles are engaged in moving the information that’s in short term memory into long term memory,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Sara C. Mednick, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. But in older adults, these spindles show a significant reduction in number and density compared with younger adults. That may be one factor contributing to forgetfulness and possibly dementia as we age.
In the study, 49 healthy sleepers under the age of 40 were given varying doses of zolpidem (Ambien) or sodium oxybate (Xyrem), and a placebo, allowing several days between medications and doses to allow the drugs to leave their bodies.
Ambien is known to increase spindle activity, while Xyrem is known to decrease it. Researchers monitored their sleep, measured sleepiness and mood, and gave the subjects several memory tests.
In one of the tests, a verbal memory test, subjects were shown pairs of words and later were shown one word from the pair and asked to recall the other.
“The verbal test reflects any kind of memory of associated things you consciously try to remember, like remembering someone’s face with their name, or a phone number and an address,” .Mednick said.
The study found increased sleep spindles associated with the Ambien use. It also found that when subjects took Ambien, they scored better on this verbal memory test.
“We demonstrated we could increase sleep spindles with Ambien and that we could increase memory with Ambien,” Mednick said.
She and her co-authors are not recommending people take Ambien to improve their memories, because the drug does come with side effects and other issues.
But the study is a first step towards finding a treatment for memory disorders. “Sleep should be something we think about in terms of treatment strategies for people with memory impairment,” she said. “This could lead to the development of pharmaceutical agents that have the effect on sleep spindles but don’t have the negative effects of Ambien."
Ironically, Ambien has been associated with amnesia while under its influence, though this actually makes sense to Mednick.
When you learn something new in the morning, and have a lot of other input throughout the day, it’s harder to hold onto that information.
But if your learning is followed by a period of amnesia, which decreases your brain activity, you are eliminating those interruptions and it may make it easier to retain what you learned learned before you took the Ambien.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She has authored several health books, including "Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility." Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.