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Stroke recovery in mice improved by Ambien, in a study by Stanford Medical Center

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Mice that had strokes rebounded significantly faster if they received low doses of a popular sleeping aid, according to researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Zolpidem, better known by the trade name Ambien, has long been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating insomnia. But it has never before been definitively shown to enhance recovery from stroke, said Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD, professor and chair of neurosurgery. Steinberg shares senior authorship of the study, which will be published online Dec. 18, 2015 in Brain, with senior research scientist Tonya Bliss, PhD.

Steinberg, the Bernard and Ronni Lacroute-William Randolph Hearst Professor in Neurosurgery and the Neurosciences, cautioned that the study's results need to be independently replicated in other laboratories before clinical trials of the drug's capacity as a stroke-recovery agent can begin.

Every year, Americans incur about 800,000 strokes, the nation's largest single cause of neurologic disability, exacting an annual tab of about $74 billion in medical costs and lost productivity.

A stroke's initial damage, which arises when the blood supply to part of the brain is blocked, occurs within the first several hours. Drugs and mechanical devices for clearing the blockage are available, but to be effective they must be initiated within several hours of the stroke's onset. As a result, fewer than 10 percent of stroke patients benefit from them.

After a few days during which tissue death continues to spread to adjacent brain regions due to repercussions from the initial damage, the brain begins slowly rewiring itself and substituting new neural connections for those destroyed by the stroke. Within three to six months, at least 90 percent of all the recovery a stroke patient is likely to experience takes place. No pharmaceutical therapy has been shown to improve recovery after the stroke. In fact, no effective treatments during the recovery phase exist, other than physical therapy, which has been shown to be only marginally successful.

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