Suit Blames Ambien for Eating Binges, Sleepwalking

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Plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the manufacturer of the sleeping pill Ambien say the drug caused them to unknowingly binge eat and sleepwalk. Some doctors say not following prescription instructions might have caused the unusual side effects.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A class action lawsuit against the maker of the popular sleeping pill Ambien has brought to light some peculiar accounts of sleepwalking. The legal complaint includes four plaintiffs who say Ambien caused them to eat and drive in their sleep.

But doctors who've researched the drug say that many sleepwalking incidents happen when patients ignore doctors' recommendations about when and how to take the drug safely.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

Some 25 million people have taken Ambien over the last decade and a half. It's been the most widely prescribed sleeping aid in recent years and clinical trials have shown it to be safe and effective, when taken as recommended. But New York attorney Susan Lask says Ambien doesn't seem to suit everyone. Last week, she announced a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the drug, claiming the pill had turned her clients into what she calls Ambien zombies.

Attorney SUSAN LASK (Defense Attorney for Ambien Plaintiffs): They go into a zombie-like state and literally walk around like the living dead and have no memory of what they do.

AUBREY: Lask says she's talked to about 50 people who say they've experienced sleepwalking after taking Ambien. One client, 55-year-old Janet Mackanin(ph), of Pasco County, Florida, says her nighttime strolls led her to the kitchen.

Ms. JANET MACKANIN (Ambien User & Plaintiff in Lawsuit): I would eat bread, I would eat ice cream. I would eat bags of chips, bags of candy.

AUBREY: Mackanin says her husband would come home late from work and find the kitchen ransacked, but she'd have no memory of every getting out of bed. The behavior is odd, say doctors who study sleeping pills, but they say it's not clear at all that the Ambien's responsible for it. Sleepwalking can be triggered by sleep deprivation, alcohol, fevers, even stress. About two percent of Americans, that's roughly six million people, are thought to sleepwalk in the absence of sleeping pills.

Dr. DAVID GROSS (Director, Sleep Center, Washington Hospital Center): Since Ambien is used very frequently, more than any other sleeping medication, and these behaviors also can occur frequently, by chance, one would expect at least a certain amount of patients will be sleepwalking and taking Ambien, even if the Ambien didn't cause it.

AUBREY: Dr. David Gross heads the sleep center at Washington Hospital Center in the District of Columbia. He has no financial relationship with Sanofi-Aventis, the manufacturer of Ambien. He says when he looked at the medical literature that has documented some of the sleepwalking and sleep driving cases, he realized that many instances occurred when people failed to use the drug properly.

Dr. GROSS: Some of the patients admitted that they took the Ambien on their way home from work, so that when they got home, they would be ready to fall asleep. Those patients, when they got into an auto accident, obviously had Ambien in their system.

AUBREY: Gross says taking Ambien before driving is a clear violation of doctors' and the manufacturers' instructions.

Dr. GROSS: The package insert clearly states that the person should take it and immediately go to bed.

AUBREY: Other patients, says Gross, admitted to mixing the sleeping pill with alcohol. Typically, it was...

Dr. GROSS: One or two glasses of wine with the Ambien, which, again, is on the package insert not to do. So that could also be expected to untold consequences.

AUBREY: All of these factors could, in part, explain the sleepwalking episodes. A spokeswoman for Sanofi-Aventis says the side effect was first noted during a clinical trial of the drug 20 years ago. As a result, it's listed on packaging information that's received by every patient who's prescribed the drug. The company declined to comment on the lawsuit, except to state that it will vigorously defend the safety and effectiveness of Ambien, when used in accordance with prescribing information.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of "Sleepwalk" by Santo and Johnny)

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