Ambien makes people do strange things, but Roseanne is still a racist

Sigh. There really are more important things happening in the world right now than a comedienne’s social media self-immolation. Several outlets have already written nuanced takes on Rosanne Barre’s racist tweet, her long history of deeply objectionable posts, and the bizarre journey of half-apologies interspersed with more vitriol that ensued.

All of this is mildly amusing, exhausting and predictable – ABC knew precisely what it was getting when the network booked a ‘Roseanne’ reboot – but things took a turn for the bizarre when Barre blamed the prescription sleep-aid Ambien for her bad behavior. Barre’s claim that she was ‘Ambien-tweeting’ even caught the attention of Sanofi, which manufactures the drug, spurring one of the more savage tweets from a pharmaceutical company in recent memory:

Obviously, I’m here for diversity, inclusion, and artfully thrown shade. It’s also clear that Roseanne Barre is racist, conspiratorially-minded and confrontational without the help of any medicine. Still, seeing that Tweet from Sanofi made me curious about whether Ambien-induced low inhibitions could possibly contribute to a career-ending Twitter flame-out.

I couldn’t help but wonder: could the medicines that put people down to sleep also let problematic thoughts come bubbling up?

OK, Carrie Bradshaw

First things first, let’s go over what Ambien is and what it does. Ambien is the trademark name for zolpidem, which is a nonbenzodiazepine sedative. It works by binding a brain-cell receptor that recognizes GABAA, which is the nervous system’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. In other words, zolpidem tamps down brain cell transmissions so you can stop lying awake going over your to-do list in your head for the 1,001th time and maybe settle down to get some sleep.


I’m sure that the mechanism of action is much much more complicated than that, but my PhD is in microbiology, NOT neuroscience. Plus, for the purposes of this post, we don’t really care precisely how Ambien works, we just want to know if people who take the medicine might be more prone to spouting stupid things on Twitter. While my PhD in microbiology makes me 100% unqualified to give a research talk on brain pharmacochemistry, I can read scientific papers like a CHAMP. So let’s investigate the reported side effects of zolpidem! What HAVE people done in an Ambien haze?

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 12.02.36 PM

It turns out…people do some wild stuff after taking zolpidem. In a review of 76 studies designed to evaluate the drug’s safety or efficacy, MacFarlane et al find:

“The use of zolpidem has been associated with certain complex sleep behaviors, including sleepwalking with object manipulation (eg, cooking, cleaning), sleep conversations (on the telephone or in person), sleep eating, sleep driving, sleep shopping, and sleep sex.

Apparently, so-called ‘complex sleep behaviors’ are a relatively rare, but not-unheard of side effect. I dug up a few other case-reports of zolpidem-induced hallucinations, temporary psychosis, cooking impressive spreads of food, and several more cases of sleep-driving, too. In fact, sleep-driving seems to be an activity of choice among zolpidem users – since 2007, 52 papers have been published that mention that side effect.

Most reports of complex sleep behaviors mention accompanying amnesia; so people don’t remember getting behind the wheel while they’re under the influence of Ambien. If complex sleep behaviors and amnesia are, in fact, a documented side effect for zolpidem (and, in fact, they are), then Rosanne Barre’s ‘Ambien-tweeting’ excuse might just hold some water for this particular episode.

But that doesn’t matter. Ambien or no Ambien, Rosanne Barre publicly called a woman of color a monkey then spent hours alternating between posting apologies and attacks with a healthy dose of alt-right whackadoodle paranoia. Furthermore, none of this behavior is NEW – Rosanne Barre’s Twitter feed has been a cesspool of the worst right-wing ideology for a long time. As Roxane Gay brilliantly wrote after the reboot’s first two episodes aired, “No amount of mental gymnastics can make what Roseanne Barr has said and done in recent years palatable.”

Apparently ABC finally got that memo, because the reboot was canceled within one day of Rosanne Barre’s initial tweet.

I wish the takeaway from this particular saga could be: don’t give confirmed racists massive platforms. Unfortunately, if the state of our politics and media are any indication, that ship has already sailed.

Still, learning about zolpidem was fun, right? Someone should write a grant to study why sleep-driving is co common. The GABAA receptor is conserved throughout animals, so mouse studies are a possibility…although where will we find teeny-tiny cars?

Have a great day, everyone. Don’t sleep and drive (or tweet).



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