Study objectives: Sleep is altered at high altitude leading many mountaineers to use hypnotics in order to improve sleep efficiency. While after a full night at altitude the short-acting hypnotic zolpidem does not appear to alter cognitive function, residual adverse effects should be considered following early waking-up as performed by mountaineers. We hypothesized that zolpidem intake at high altitude would alter cognitive function 4 hours after drug intake.
Methods: In a randomized double-blind controlled cross-over study, 22 participants were evaluated during two nights at sea level and two nights at 3800 m, 4 hours after zolpidem (10 mg) or placebo intake at 10:00 pm. Polygraphic recording was performed until waking-up at 01:30 am. Sleep quality, sleepiness and symptoms of acute mountain sickness were assessed by questionnaires. Two cognitive tasks (Simon task and duration-production task) were performed at rest and during exercise and postural control was evaluated.
Results: Zolpidem increased reaction time in all conditions (zolpidem 407 ± 9 ms vs. placebo 380 ± 11 ms; p < 0.001) and error rate in incongruent trials only (10.2 ± 1.1% vs. 7.8 ± 0.8%; p < 0.01) in the Simon task and increased time perception variability (p < 0.001). Zolpidem also altered postural parameters (e.g. center of pressure area, zolpidem 236 ± 171.5 mm2 vs. placebo 119.6 ± 59 mm2; p < 0.001). Zolpidem did not affect apnea-hypopnea index and mean arterial oxygen saturation (p > 0.05) but increased sleep quality (p < 0.001). Zolpidem increased symptoms of acute mountain sickness and sleepiness (p < 0.05).
Conclusions: Acute zolpidem intake at high altitude alters cognitive functions and postural control during early wakening which may be deleterious for safety and performances of climbers.