Roseanne Barr has blamed her recent racist statements on the sleep-aid medication Ambien. Does this claim make scientific sense? Not really, no.
Barr recently had her sitcom cancelled and her agency terminate her contract following racist comments on Twitter. After originally stating she would be leaving Twitter, she returned less than a day later, apparently apologising for her statements and claiming they were the result of her taking Ambien, the trade name for the sedative Zolpidem Tartrate.
This presents an interesting question; can Ambien, a well-known sedative used to treat insomnia, really cause you to become more racist? It’s something worth considering, given that some 60million people in the states were being prescribed sleeping pills as far back as 2011, and the data showed that figure was rising sharply year on year. While there are many theories that have been put forward about Trump’s shock election win (some wilder than others), one possibility that nobody’s mentioned thus far is that of the wide use of sleeping pills, particularly Ambien, making people more open and agreeable to racist ideology and rhetoric.
Could it be that Ambien use has shaken global politics in profound and unhelpful ways? That should be included in the list of side effects on the packets, at the very least.
This isn’t about whether Roseanne Barr is racist or not; the reader can look at the many examples of racist things she’s said and done and make their own conclusions. But can racism be the result of sleeping pills, specifically Ambien? Is that even possible?
Ambien is a sedative-hypnotic. “Sedative” generally describes drugs that reduce or remove anxiety, while “hypnotic” describes ones that induce and sustain sleepiness and sleep. Unsurprisingly, there is a great deal of overlap given how the brain processes these things, and many drugs can achieve either effect, or both, depending on dosage, delivery etc. Hence, the term sedative-hypnotic.
Ambien shares a lot of properties with benzodiazepine, but without the more powerful and habit-forming effects of that more-tightly-regulated substance. Ambien works by increasing the activity of GABA neurons in the brain, by specifically binding to GABAA receptors and making them more “potent”.
To simplify, GABA is a neurotransmitter, a very common and potent one. It’s the main inhibitory transmitter in human, and most other species, brains and nervous systems. Unlike many other neurotransmitters, what GABA does to a neuron is stop it activating. It shuts it down somewhat, so it doesn’t send signals and induce activity in other neurons further along. Think of it like the red traffic lights of a city’s road network; not great if you’re presented with one, but if you got rid of them there’d be chaos and carnage within minutes. So, they’re important.
Ambien actually boosts the potency of GABA by modulating certain key receptors, which technically means, when you take it, your neurons are less active than they usually are as a result. And, as huge an oversimplification as this may be, overactive neurons, particularly in the frontal cortex, are what stops us sleeping. So, it sort of all makes sense how it works, if you ignore the extremely complicated aspects.
But what’s this got to do with racism? Not a lot thus far. But there may be some links.
As stated, an “overactive” brain is often described as a key factor in insomnia. Use of technology or other stimulation feeds into this, keeping our brains active long after when they should be winding down. The more active, wakeful parts of the brain are found in the frontal lobes, particularly the prefrontal cortex, the most “advanced” part of the brain.
There’s evidence to suggest that Ambien reduces activity in prefrontal cortex regions specifically, and the prefrontal cortex is responsible for processes like forward planning, decision making, complex personal behaviour, and… moderating social behaviour. Also, regions like the orbitofrontal cortex, also part of the prefrontal cortex, are known to be integral for controlling impulses and other primitive urges.
Therefore, it wouldn’t be a huge leap to argue that Ambien does indeed suppress those key parts of the brain that are responsible for controlling your baser, more primitive, often-unpleasant urges. Fear of the unknown and people who don’t conform, prejudice, does seem to be an unfortunately common result of how the human brain works in the world we’ve constructed for ourselves.
Not that this applies to everyone, of course. Plenty of people go about their lives never racially abusing anyone, and simply spending time among people who are nominally “different” can be enough to offset these primitive leanings.
Basically, looking at all the available facts, it could be said that Ambien could make you do or say racist things, if you already have pronounced racist tendencies. Make of that what you will.
Dean Burnett explores more themes like this in his new book The Happy Brain, available now in the UK, US and Canada