Zolpidem produces paradoxical recovery of speech, cognitive and motor functions in select subjects with severe brain injury but underlying mechanisms remain unknown. In three diverse patients with known zolpidem responses we identify a distinctive pattern of EEG dynamics that suggests a mechanistic model. In the absence of zolpidem, all subjects show a strong low frequency oscillatory peak ∼6–10 Hz in the EEG power spectrum most prominent over frontocentral regions and with high coherence (∼0.7–0.8) within and between hemispheres. Zolpidem administration sharply reduces EEG power and coherence at these low frequencies. The ∼6–10 Hz activity is proposed to arise from intrinsic membrane properties of pyramidal neurons that are passively entrained across the cortex by locally-generated spontaneous activity. Activation by zolpidem is proposed to arise from a combination of initial direct drug effects on cortical, striatal, and thalamic populations and further activation of underactive brain regions induced by restoration of cognitively-mediated behaviors.
Some individuals who experience severe brain damage are left with disorders of consciousness. While they can appear to be awake, these individuals lack awareness of their surroundings and cannot respond to events going on around them. Few treatments are available, but a minority of patients show striking improvements in speech, alertness and movement in response to the sleeping pill zolpidem.
Although the idea of a sleeping pill increasing consciousness is paradoxical, it is possible that in patients with impaired consciousness, zolpidem reduces the activity of an area of the brain that would otherwise inhibit activity in other regions of the brain. However, the precise mechanisms by which zolpidem increases consciousness in these patients, and the reasons why only a minority of individuals respond, are unknown.
Now, Williams et al. have used electrodes attached to the scalp to measure changes in brain activity in three patients known to respond to zolpidem. These measurements showed that before the drug was taken, there were two important differences between the brain activity of the patients and that of healthy subjects: first, the patients showed brain waves of a lower frequency than any seen in healthy subjects; second, these brain waves were much more synchronized than brain activity in healthy individuals. After taking zolpidem, this synchronicity was reduced and all of the patients also showed an increase in higher frequency brain waves.
Based on the effects of zolpidem on electrical activity throughout the brain, Williams et al. propose a new model to explain the therapeutic action of the drug in some minimally conscious patients. If the correlation between brain waves and zolpidem response holds up in future studies, this relation could be used to predict which patients might benefit from the drug. A better understanding of these processes should also help us to understand, diagnose and develop new treatments for disorders of consciousness.