Sleeping Pills May Wake Up PVS Patients, Terri Schiavo Family Optimistic

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 24, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Sleeping Pills May Wake Up PVS Patients, Terri Schiavo Family Optimistic Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
May 24, 2006

London, England ( — British and South African researchers have discovered that they can temporarily wake up patients who are comatose or in a supposedly permanent vegetative state by, ironically, giving them a common sleeping pill. The drug allowed comatose patients to interact and talk with their family for hours before the effects wear off.

Writing in the medical journal NeuroRehabilitation, the doctors said they found success when giving the patients zolpidem, commonly known as Ambien and taken by millions to help them fall asleep.

Doctors reported they gave the sleeping pills to three patients, two of whom suffered severe head injuries in automobile accidents and the third was left brain damaged in a near-drowning incident.

The report indicates the patients have been taking Ambien every day for several years with no side effects.

"The effect is amazing to say the least," Ralf Clauss of the Royal Surrey County Hospital, tells the medical journal Nature. "They can interact, make jokes and speak on the phone."

Nature reports that one patient has even played catch with family members.

Clauss told the medical journal that suing the sleeping pills to wake up the comatose patients was a freak discovery. He started using Ambien when one PVS patient was seemingly restless.

"Lo and behold, he woke up 15 minutes later," says Clauss. "And so now we’re using a sleeping drug to wake people up in the morning."

Though the process is backwards to what may be intuitively correct, Clauss theorizes that the sleeping process is vastly accelerated in PVS and comatose patients. He said the Ambien drug works as intended and makes the patients sleepy, but alert.

News reports of the success of the drug prompted Terri Schiavo’s family to call for a moratorium of all potential ordinary care removal for persons diagnosed in a PVS condition.

Terri’s family pleaded for years with her former husband Michael to use different treatments or medicines that could possibly help improve Terri’s condition, but were denied.

Robert Schindler, Terri’s father, said in a statement obtained by that patients who are wrongly diagnosed with PVS, like Terri, could benefit from the researchers’ discovery.

“We at the Foundation are seeing that the PVS diagnosis is being commonly misdiagnosed," he said.

"Consequently, it has become very obvious we don’t know enough about this so-called diagnosis, and common sense dictates that the removal of food and water based on this misclassification must end until further studies can be conducted," he added.

Nature reports that the drug company ReGen Therapeutics in London is attempting to make a drug that can help such patients achieve alertness and awareness.

Clauss says he hopes to begin clinical trials and discover more about how various patients respond. He also says he thinks the drug could be turned into a slow-release formula that would allow patients to take it a few times a day and become permanently aware.

This isn’t the first time drugs has been used to wake comatose patients.

In December 2000, Patricia White Bull, after given the drug Amantadine (used to stimulate people with Parkinson’s disease and brain damage) awoke after 16 years of being in what doctors were calling a persistent vegetative state.

Related web sites:
Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation –