You Snooze, You Lose

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

According to You Snooze, You Lose, if you’re drinking coffee, “You might as well be commuting by buggy”:

Old-school stimulants like caffeine, amphetamines and the drug Ritalin are about to be marginalized by eugeroics. This emerging breed of “wakefulness” pills promises to keep the workers of tomorrow not just awake, but alert, on-task and feeling fine through the night and well into the next day. Remember these names, because they’re your future: Modafinil, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1998 for the treatment of narcolepsy and marketed in the U.S. as Provigil, is already giving a competitive edge to everyone from Air Force pilots on 40-hour missions to (less legally) college students cramming for exams. The drug’s maker, Cephalon in Frazer, Pennsylvania, is awaiting FDA approval for armodafinil, which promises even longer periods of wakefulness on a single dose, and Irvine, California–based Cortex is working on its own drug, code-named CX717 and developed with funding from the military. The drugs are targeted at sleep disorders like narcolepsy, but it’s their dramatic potential influence on the workplace that has researchers and efficiency experts buzzing.

Scientists understand how the drugs work only broadly. Unlike traditional stimulants, eugeroics don’t simply jazz up the whole body. Instead they tweak specific sleep-related mechanisms in the brain, so users don’t feel jittery or wired, just alert. And in experiments with CX717, sleep-deprived rhesus monkeys on the drug often outperformed their own well-rested but undrugged best efforts on mental-performance tests. Modafinil, too, “is definitely a cognitive enhancer,” says cognitive psychopharmacologist Barbara Sahakian of the University of Cambridge. In her studies of alert human volunteers, the drug improved planning, concentration and impulse-control skills, and even boosted some forms of memory.

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