CHICAGO — Long-distance air travelers who use a new drug and a drink to bring on a nap may avoid jet lag but wind up with transient amnesia, an episode of memory loss and confusion lasting several hours, researchers say.
"We can't say to what degree the three components--the drug, drinking and travel--interact," said Harold Morris III, a neurologist and co-author of the report.
"But what this suggests is that if you're planning to go to Europe and they offer free champagne on the flight, and you're taking a drug for jet lag, don't plan on negotiating a peace treaty or conducting any other important business."
The drug, triazolam, is a form of benzodiazepine, a class of hypnotic agents prescribed by doctors to help induce sleep in people battling insomnia.
Morris said air travelers increasingly have been using the drug to get to sleep quickly on long-distance flights "and get a jump on the next day's business."
What resulted instead in three cases reported in the recent Journal of the American Medical Assn. were episodes of transient global amnesia.
Each case involved a neurologist traveling from New York to Europe to attend a scientific meeting, said Morris, who reported the cases with Dr. Melinda Estes, a colleague at the Cleveland Clinic.
None of the three had consumed enough alcohol to be intoxicated, he said.
"In each, people accompanying the amnesiacs noticed nothing abnormal," Morris said in a telephone interview recently. "In fact, it was remarkable because they carried out some very complicated dealings: changing currency, finding their way around foreign cities and the like.
"As it turned out, though, they couldn't recall the activities the next day, as though the memory were a tape recorder and someone cut that segment of tape right out.
"These were unusually well-observed instances because the people happened to be in the company of other neuroscientists," Morris said.
Use of benzodiazepine has been known to cause brief episodes of amnesia, but usually in older people, he said.
"A practicing neurologist might see this two or three times a year," Morris said. "But that is almost always in older people and almost always in a case where hypertension, diabetes or heart disease is present --some factor that can cause a temporary impairment of the circulation of blood to that region of the brain where memory resides.
"In this case, we believe we're talking about a different mechanism triggering the lapse," he said. "We know going to Europe won't do it by itself, and we suspect alcohol alone won't do it either.
"But the amnesia is a property of the drug. Quite possibly, the additive effect of long-distance travel and alcohol combined to cause the interference in the memory bank," Morris said.
The Upjohn Co., manufacturer of Halcion, the brand-name drug containing triazolam that was cited, provides an insert with packaging that says the drug should not be taken in conjunction with alcohol.
The insert also notes that some episodes of anterograde amnesia, short-lived episodes that last several hours but clear without apparent lasting effects, have been reported.
"We can't comment further until we've seen the study" on travel-related episodes, said spokeswoman Florence Steinberg of Upjohn, which is based in Kalamazoo, Mich.