How Does Ambien Work?

Neurons and Neurotransmitters

The brain's functions, including sensation, emotions, muscle control and cognition, are all governed by small cells called neurons. Neurons represent a complicated network of interconnected cells that communicate with each other using chemical signals called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are secreted by neurons into spaces called neurons, where they can bind to special proteins called receptors, which are designed to bind to specific neurotransmitters. When a neurotransmitter binds to a receptor, it causes a signal to be sent to the other neurons in the synapse. Often there are many different kinds of receptors for a neurotransmitter, with each receptor being specific to certain kinds of neurons. Ambien works by specifically binding to certain receptors, altering the brain's activity.

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Ambien's active ingredient is a chemical called zolpidem. Zolpidem is similar in structure to another class of medication called benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines have a variety of effects on the brain. They have the ability to reduce anxiety, prevent seizures, and they also work as sedatives. The different effects of benzodiazepines are mediated by different types of receptors. Zolpidem is not a benzodiazepine, but it binds to some of the same receptors to which benzodiazepine drugs bind. As the Merck Manual explains, zolpidem binds to the receptors in the brain that are responsible for benzodiazepine's sedative properties 1. As a result, zolpidem can cause sedation without generating any of the other effects of benzodiazepines.

GABA Receptors

As a 1998 article in CNS Drug Reviews explains, zolpidem binds to a subtype of GABA receptor. GABA is a neurotransmitter that primarily works to inhibit the activity of neurons. When zolpidem binds to this receptor, it slows and stops activity in certain parts of the brain. For this reason, zolpidem is often classified as a hypnotic. It diminishes activity in parts of the brain that are responsible for processing thoughts. By slowing cognition, zolpidem makes it easier for patients to fall asleep. Some formulations of Ambien release a constant amount of zolpidem over a period of time, which makes it easier for patients to both fall asleep and stay asleep.