Skip to main content

Doctors: Sleep drug likely not cause of plane suspect's odd behavior

By Madison Park, CNN
Doctors and the drug maker urge taking Ambien as prescribed and to avoid taking with alcohol and other medications.
Doctors and the drug maker urge taking Ambien as prescribed and to avoid taking with alcohol and other medications.
  • Ambien is a prescription drug used to treat insomnia and can have unusual side effects
  • Plane suspect told authorities he took eight tablets of Ambien, later said one
  • Doctors say the suspect's alleged behavior inconsistent with side effects of Ambien

(CNN) -- A man accused of disrupting a trans-Atlantic flight by claiming he was carrying explosives also told the federal marshal onboard that he had taken the popular sleep aid Ambien, according to court documents.

Ambien, also known as zolpidem, can cause extreme side effects such as e-mailing, cooking and driving while asleep, according to the Food and Drug Administration and published medical research. However, sleep experts say the behavior exhibited by the suspect, Derek Stansberry, 27, is inconsistent with the known side effects of the sleep medication.

Ambien is a prescription drug used to treat insomnia. It belongs to a class of medication called sedative-hypnotics, which slow activity in the brain to allow sleep.

There have been reports of individuals making and eating food, talking on the phone and having sex while not fully awake after taking Ambien with alcohol or other medications, according to the FDA.

Doctors and Sanofi-aventis, the maker of Ambien, say it's imperative the medication be taken as prescribed, which includes not mixing Ambien with alcohol or other drugs.

Ambien can increase the likelihood for confusional arousal, a state when the brain is half asleep and half awake, say sleep doctors. Usually the person will speak in garble that doesn't fit the context of his or her environment, said Dr. Michel Cramer Bornemann, a lead investigator of Sleep Forensics Associates.

For example, a 30-year-old man might wake up saying "I don't want to go to school," although he was a student 10 years ago.

"The behaviors this individual described are not consistent with Ambien's side effects," Cramer Bornemann said regarding Stansberry's case.

"In a person experiencing confusional arousal because of Ambien, you wouldn't expect to hear comments from that person that seem to fit into the context of the environment that they are in," he said. "In this case, a man on board a plane is talking about false passports, bombs, dynamite and blowing up a plane. This seems really at first glance, inconsistent with what we know of Ambien's side effects."

This is because the suspect's comments were "oriented to time, location and place," Cramer Bornemann said.

Dr. Michael Breus agreed. Breus is the clinical director of the sleep division at Southwest Spine and Sports in Scottsdale, Arizona.

"If you took eight Ambien pills, you'd be slurring your speech. You'd sound like you're drunk. You wouldn't be coherent to say, 'There's a bomb in my backpack and I have a pressure switch,' " he said.

Breus expressed skepticism that Ambien alone could have triggered such a behavior.

"There had to be an interaction effect or he drank alcohol or there was some other drug," he said. "We also don't know his mental health history. If he had significant history of mental health problems, he could have had a psychotic break."

Stansberry, of Riverview, Florida, has been charged with two felony counts of interfering with flight crew members and knowingly giving false information about possession of an explosive device. Stansberry told authorities he was carrying dynamite and a detonation device.

On a Delta flight from Paris, France, to Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday, Stansberry allegedly made threats of a bomb and told the air marshal he had taken eight tablets of Ambien. After the plane landed, he told FBI investigators he had taken one Ambien pill, a change from his earlier comment, according to court documents.

Stansberry, a former Air Force intelligence specialist, was ordered Wednesday to undergo a competency evaluation.

Competency tests ordered for suspect in airline flight diversion

Like other sedative-hypnotic sleep aids, including Lunesta and Sonata, Ambien mimics neurotransmitters and binds to a specific brain chemical receptor, promoting sleep.

Sleep doctors do not recommend taking sleep aids like Ambien before a flight, although it is a common practice. Breus recommended taking the pill in a predictable environment, such as one's bedroom, rather than an airplane.

"Ambien and all the medications like it are serious medications," he said. "You're supposed to take them and turn out the lights."

Sanofi-aventis, in a statement e-mailed to, said:

"Sanofi-aventis is committed to patient health and safety [and] treats these matters with the highest degree of importance. It is important to note that Ambien or Ambien CR is not appropriate for every individual.

"Patients should fully disclose alcohol and drug use with their health care professional, and not consume alcohol while they are taking a prescription sleep medication."

Since the introduction of Ambien in 1992, more than 230 million prescriptions have been filled.

CNN's Saundra Young, John Bonifield and wire staff contributed to this report.