Kerry Kennedy and the Ambien Defense- UPDATE

Another Kennedy family member has found herself in a difficult situation.

Just one month after Robert Kennedy Jr.’s ex-wife Mary committed suicide, his 52-year-old sister Kerry Kennedy is in trouble with the law.

Kennedy, who is the ex-wife of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, was involved in a motor vehicle accident on last Friday. She was allegedly driving erratically on Interstate 684 in upstate NY, when she collided with a truck.

According to the Daily News, Kerry Kennedy was found by police sitting behind the wheel of her car. She had no explanation for what happened. She took a voluntary Breathalyzer test that quickly ruled out alcohol.

Kennedy claims that there is a possibility that she may have accidentally taken the sleeping pill Ambien instead of her thyroid medication. Although her initial drug blood and urine tests at the hospital came back negative,  police are doing a follow-up analysis of her blood sample.

Family members are also questioning whether an undiagnosed medical condition could be behind the accident.

Could Ambien have played a role in Kerry Kennedy’s accident?

What is Ambien?

Ambien, generic name: Zolpidem, is used to treat insomnia (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep). Zolpidem belongs to a class of medications called sedative-hypnotics. It works by slowing activity in the brain to allow sleep.

Zolpidem comes in a variety of forms, but is most commonly used as a tablet or an extended-release (long-acting) tablet to take by mouth.

Patients who take Ambien become very sleepy soon after they take it and will remain sleepy for some time afterwards. Patients should plan to go to bed right after taking zolpidem and to stay in bed for 7 to 8 hours.  If you get up too soon after taking zolpidem, you may experience memory problems.

Sleep problems usually improve within 7 to 10 days after starting zolpidem.

Ambien should normally be taken for short periods of time. If taken for 2 weeks or longer, zolpidem may not help sleep as well as it did initially. Prolonged use of zolpidem can lead to dependence.

Can Ambien Cause Unusual Behavior?

It has been reported that some people who took Ambien got out of bed and drove their cars, prepared and ate food, had sex, made phone calls, went sleep-walking, or were involved in other activities while not fully awake. After they woke up, these folks usually couldn’t remember what they were doing.

Behavior and mental health may change in unexpected ways in patients taking the medication. It is hard to tell if these changes are caused by zolpidem or if they are caused by physical or mental illnesses that were already present or have or suddenly developed.

Tell your doctor right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • aggressiveness
  • strange or unusually outgoing behavior
  •  hallucinations (seeing things or hearing voices that do not exist)
  • feeling as if you are outside of your body
  • memory problems
  • difficulty concentrating
  • anxiety
  • becoming easily agitated
  • slowed speech or movements
  • new or worsening depression
  • thinking about killing yourself or trying to do so
  • confusion
  • any other changes in your usual thoughts, mood, or behavior

Photo Credit: Rob Kim/Getty Images for RFK Center

An Update: July 18, 2012

According to the New York Times, Kerry Kennedy believes her accident may have been caused by a complex partial seizure.

She said she later underwent neurological testing at Mount Sinai Medical Center, including an M.R.I., which she said showed an area of “hyperdensity” that appeared to be a result of a head injury she sustained “some time ago.” The test revealed an injury on the right side of her brain, and she had an abnormal EEG reading, she said.

The tests at Mount Sinai on Monday, she said, “led my doctors to believe that this accident was caused not by a sleeping aid, but by a complex partial seizure.”

What are Complex Partial Seizures?

All seizures are caused by abnormal electrical disturbances in the brain. Partial (focal) seizures occur when this electrical activity remains in a limited area of the brain.

Partial seizures can be further characterized as:

  • Simple — not affecting awareness or memory
  • Complex — affecting awareness or memory of events before, during, and immediately after the seizure, and affecting behavior

Although these seizures typically start in a small area of the temporal lobe or frontal lobe of the brain, they quickly start to involve other areas of the brain, including those that affect alertness and awareness.

Typically, a complex partial seizure starts with a blank stare and loss of contact with surroundings. This is often followed by chewing movements with the mouth, picking at or fumbling with clothing, mumbling and performing simple, unorganized movements over and over again. These are called automatisms.

Sometimes people undergoing a complex partial seizures can wander around.  For example, a person might leave a room, go downstairs and out into the street, completely unaware of what he or she was doing.

This can be summarized in the diagram below:


Today the New York Times is reporting that Kerry Kennedy did indeed have Ambien in her bloodstream at the time of the crash.

At the time of the accident, Ms. Kennedy had told the officer that she may have taken the ambien instead of her usual thyroid medication and that the two medications were “next to each other on her counter, and it is possible she took the sleep medication instead of the thyroid medication.”

The amount found in her blood was reportedly “low,” and it would be difficult to determine when the medication was taken.

It may be difficult to determine what roles the potential complex seizure or the Zolpidem played in causing the accident.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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