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Ambien Sleeping Pills May Improve Memory, Study Reveals

Update Date: Mar 13, 2013 08:45 PM EDT

A new controversial study has revealed that taking a commonly prescribed sleeping pill could actually improve your memory.

Scientists behind the latest research found that the sleeping pills containing zolpidem, commonly referred to as Ambien, enhances a biological sleep mechanism that enables the brain to consolidate memories.

Researchers say the latest findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, show for the first time how sleep spindles drive memory consolidation in the hippocampus and may also provide insight into the development of new sleep therapies that could help improve memory in aging adults and dementia, Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia patients.

Sleep spindles or "sigma bands" or "sigma waves" is a burst of oscillatory brain activity shown on an Electroencephalography (EEG) recording that occurs during stage 2 sleep. These bursts of brain activity during sleep represent periods where the brain is inhibiting processing to keep the sleeper in a peaceful state.  Previous studies have linked sleep spindle activity to the integration of new information into existing knowledge.

Past studies have linked sleep spindles to memory consolidation in the hippocampus, a brain region essential to forming, organizing and storing memories. 

The new study involved 49 men and women between the ages of 18 and 39.  The participants were normal sleepers and were given varying does of sleeping pills and placebos, allowing several days between doses to allow the drugs to leave their bodies.

The latest research from the University of California Riverside reveals that zolpidem significantly increased the density of sleep spindles and improved verbal memory consolidation.

"We found that a very common sleep drug can be used to increase verbal memory," lead researcher Elizabeth A. Mednick said in a university release. "This is the first study to show you can manipulate sleep to improve memory. It suggests sleep drugs could be a powerful tool to tailor sleep to particular memory disorders."

"Pharmacologically enhancing sleep spindles in healthy adults produces exceptional memory performance beyond that seen with sleep alone or sleep with the comparison drug (sodium oxybate)," researchers wrote. "The results set the stage for targeted treatment of memory impairments as well as the possibility of exceptional memory improvement above that of a normal sleep period."

The next step is for researchers to study the impact of zolpidem on older adults who experience poor memory because Alzheimer's, dementia and schizophrenia patients experience decreases in sleep spindles. 

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