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A potentially fatal ambien party.

June 4, 2009

Denisse Reyes, Pharm.D., C.Ph.

How does a fun night of taking prescription sleeping pills and seeing who can stay up the longest sound to you? Apparently, these kinds of "Ambien" parties are becoming more and more common. According to abusers of these sleeping pills, they get high by fighting the effects of the drug and forcing their bodies to stay awake. They experience hallucinations, blurred vision, reduced inhibition, and black outs (1).

So, why does the government allow these drugs to be legally manufactured? Well, when taken as prescribed, they are very effective for people who suffer from insomnia. Ambien, although structurally different, shares pharmacological actions with the benzodiazepines, which include Xanax, Ativan, and Valium. These are also very commonly abused for similar effects. Benzodiazepines are approved to treat conditions such as insomnia, muscle spasms, and anxiety among other conditions.

These two classes of drugs work within the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and spinal cord. The CNS controls all voluntary (walking, talking, dancing) and involuntary functions (breathing and heart rate). The brain is made up of a network of neurons (brain cells) that send messages back and forth to tell the body which functions to perform. The messages are sent via neurotransmitters (the brain's chemical messengers) (2).

The main mechanism of action of Ambien and the benzodiazepines is to enhance the activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. Basically, when our bodies are overwhelmed with anxiety, tense muscles, and/or the inability to sleep, GABA is sent out to calm things down. This is why they are classified as CNS depressants.

Unfortunately, neither Ambien nor the benzodiazepines are without risks. Too much CNS depression can result in slurred speech, falls, embarrassing dancing, and no recollection of it the next morning. These types of drugs are often referred to as "date rape" drugs because of their potential to cause anterograde amnesia in unsuspecting victims. In high doses or when taken together with other CNS depressants, such as alcohol, it can be fatal by causing the body to stop breathing. Moreover, physical dependence can develop, at which point, stopping abruptly can cause withdrawal symptoms and even seizures (3). Having prescription status may lead some to believe that these drugs are safe, but the reality is that using them recreationally can have detrimental effects.

1. Douda, Dennis. "Teens Using Ambien as a 'Party Drug'. WCCO. 13 December, 2006. CBS Broadcasting Inc. 3 June, 2009.
2. "Drugs and the Brain". National Institute of Drug Abuse.17 September, 2008. U.S Department of Health and Human Services. 3 June, 2009.
3. Clinical Pharmacology. Gold Standard. 2009. 3 June, 2009. on Social Media