Awakened by a sleeping pill

    03 December 2020

    A patient with severe brain injury was temporarily able to talk, walk, and recognize family members after being treated with sleeping medication.

    A Dutch man who could not move and talk spontaneously for eight years started to do so again after being administered a sleeping pill. The spectacular but temporary effect was studied with neuroscientific methods, giving researchers from the Radboud university medical center and Human Brain Project researchers at Amsterdam University a better understanding of this disorder's underlying processes in the brain. The article has been published in the scientific journal Cortex.


    That a certain subset of patients with brain injury can benefit from the drug zolpidem is in itself not new. But, for the first time, the researchers in this study found clues for the reason behind this phenomenon on the brain-level. This could potentially help to find a more long-term solution for these patients.

    Neurobiologists Conrado Bosman and Cyriel Pennartz of the UvA’s Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences did the analysis behind a study to unravel the working mechanism of the drug’s paradoxical effect. The scientists are working in HBP’s research area on consciousness, cognition and its disorders.

    Dampening hyperactivity

    Using electroencephalography and magnetoencephalography the scientists show that cognitive deficits, speech loss, and motor impairments after severe brain injury are associated with strong “beta band connectivity” throughout the brain. The overactivity leads to noise that stifles normal brain activity. The drug dampens this overactivity and temporarily restores normal function.

    “The treatment cannot be repeated at high frequency in the same patient, but we are currently working on a Deep Brain Stimulation treatment to see if the awakenings can be induced more regularly”, says Cyriel Pennartz.

    Text with material from Radboud University and UvA Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences

    Publication details

    Hisse Arnts et al, Awakening after a sleeping pill: Restoring functional brain networks after severe brain injury, in: Cortex, November 2020,



    Video Still from Cortex, Hisse Arnts et al


    Cyriel Pennartz

    Conrado Bosman

    HBP Public Relations
    Peter Zekert
    +49 2461 61 96860

    See also:

    Brain Matters: Consciousness research and Clinical Use Cases
    Consciousness and its disorders are one of the HBP’s focus areas in the current phase of research. Find out more about clinical use cases of this work in our webinar series Brain Matters: