Waking the brain
When a drug seems to perform a miracle.
In 2008, my disabled daughter Nura was part of a drug trial for a drug called Stilnox. Here’s what we discovered when we researched the drug.

On 11 January 1999, Louis Viljoen, a patient categorized as being in a permanent vegetative state, woke up. He had been unconscious for 3 years.

Louis was in a horrific accident on his way to work when he was knocked off his bicycle by a speeding truck. He sustained multiple injuries to his head and body. After months of intensive care his physical injuries healed, but he remained in a coma, until he was eventually discharged from hospital and moved to a rehabilitation centre near Springs, his home town.

For 3 years Louis’ mom, Sienie, visited him every day to feed and bathe him. On a few occasions she noticed he seemed restless and asked her GP, Dr Wally Nel what she could do to settle Louis.

Dr Nel suggested she give him one of her sleeping tablets, Zolpidem (called Stilnox in South Africa), which was safe and would help calm him. Zolpidem is routinely used for the short-term treatment of insomnia. Minutes after the Zolpidem was administered, Louis’ eyes seemed to brighten and unexpectedly appeared to focus on his mom.

After 3 years of silence he uttered his first words since the near fatal accident:  ‘hello Mummy’.

Sienie was in shock, and understandably so. Her son had been diagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state with no possibility of recovery, and here he was speaking to her.

After remaining awake for almost 3 hours Louis drifted back into his previous state. Doctors were baffled because after each Zolpidem tablet Louis would wake from his coma. Neurologists, psychiatrists and physicians all stood by as Louis would emerge from his impaired consciousness, and then slowly drift back into the darkness as the drug wore off. After a decade Louis now remains normally conscious.

This was our introduction to the Stilnox miracle and the drug trial.

The theory of how Stilnox impacts the brain is that a certain chemical in the drug appears to target dormant or supposedly dead parts of the brain, allowing oxygen and blood flow to the suppressed areas, which allows them to “reawaken”. It would appear that the brain shuts down or closes up areas that are under threat as a protection mechanism.

So if these areas can be reopened and stimulated they could theoretically start functioning again. From studies it is now known that Stilnox stimulates GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid) in brain-injured patients while normally medicines that stimulate GABA have relaxing, anti-anxiety, anti-convulsive and sleep inducing effects.

The difficulty with the Stilnox drug trial is the reluctance on the part of pharmaceutical companies to retest or retrial a drug that has already been tested and scheduled as a sleeping tablet. They have no reason to run further tests. Many also see the trial as being meaningless as the results are based on case studies and anecdotal evidence. The scientific community needs consistency in results and responses, they need construct validity and measurement tools that display quantitative evidence.

But this is not possible when dealing with human beings who under normal circumstances are very different, not to mention trying to record results from people who have suffered various brain incidents and have such profoundly different reactions. 

For more information read Hope in Brain Damage by Dr Ralf Clauss, visit www.hopeinbraindamage.co.uk, or search the net for Zolpidem and find many interesting journal articles and reports.

Read more about Nura’s experience on the drug.


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