In this week’s episode, Jesse finds a human guinea-pig with a “virgin brain” and gives him 200mg of the anti-narcolepsy drug Modafinil — which has found a second life and far more popularity as a wakefulness-promoting agent for people ranging from jet fighter pilots to late-night-loving college students. Over the course of a long afternoon, Jesse talks with this week’s guest about how he feels, whether the Modafinil is affecting his productivity, and a frank discussion on Modafinil’s possible side effects.
More on Modafinil
Created in the 1970s in France, Modafinil (the generic name, it sold in the U.S. under the brand name “Provigil”) must be prescribed by a doctor, and is the treatment of choice for patients suffering from the sleep disorder narcolepsy or sleep apnea. In its off-label use as a smart drug, it is a well-known “stay awake” solution used to fight fatigue by E.R. doctors, study-obsessed college students, and military personnel. Athletes have been named in the media as Modafinil users, including baseball’s Barry Bonds, who used Modafinil along with human growth hormone and anabolic steroids.
The World Anti-Doping Agency listed Modafinil as a prohibited substance in 2004. Typically this smart drug has been used by athletes to prolong exercise sessions and to increase overall performance. In the U.S., the FDA has declared Modafinil a Scheduled IV controlled substance and illegal to import without prescription, with a limit of only 50 doses.
[For the record: Jesse bought the Test Subject's drugs (not Provigil, but generic Modafinil) over-the-counter in Mexico, and the experiment was performed in Thailand, so Smart Drug Smarts remains 100% compliant with all laws - so far as you can prove!]
The Test Subject with the “Virgin Brain”
The anonymous Test Subject (“TS”) is given a 200mg dose of Modafinil shortly before 11am (a single pill is typically 100mg or 200mg), and Jesse checks in with him throughout the day to learn the effects and subjective experience for a first-time user. Luckily, TS was a pretty talkative personality, and had a lot to say:
“I’ve felt fairly engaged with my work,” said TS when asked to describe how he felt under Modafinil’s influence. Jesse suggests that if listeners were to take Modafinil as a productivity-boost, it would be a good idea to pre-plan what work they intend to engage in, otherwise they might run the risk of investing energy in tasks that weren’t worth the enhanced focus that Modafinil provides. “Once you’re already on the drug [and everything seems more focus-worthy], you lose the ability to make decisions with your baseline level of interest.”
When TS was asked if he would notice any striking difference in his behavior, had he been given a dosage without his knowledge, he said “I’d assume I was just feeling good.” He went on to describe how his day has been productive — with less commonplace distractions like an urge to check email or Facebook — but there hadn’t been noticeable side effects, just an overall good feeling and focus for his work.
Unlike overt stimulants like caffeine or cocaine, Modafinil seems to promote wakefulness without jitters, anxiousness, a racing heart, or aggressive behavioral changes. And unlike Adderall, also known to yield exceptional mental focus, there are no known negative health consequences. There is also no dopamine spike (dopamine is the brain’s primary “reward” neurotransmitter), so Modafinil is not considered to have addictive potential. However, as a comparatively new medication, patients have not been taking Modafinil long enough for its long-term effects (or the internal mechanism by which it does what it does) to be understood.
Modafinil’s half-life in the body is 15 hours – significantly longer than many drugs, so those taking it should prepare for a long time before normal levels of sleepiness return. The related drug Armodafinil, sold under the brand name Nuvigil, is an even stronger sleepiness-fighter, and is also prescription-only.
Neuroscience Headline of the Week: Tips for Maintaining Cognitive Health
Want to keep your cognition in tip top shape? Harvard has some tips for you.
- Be a life-long learner. Never stop learning. If you don’t use it [your brain], turns out you WILL lose it.
- Strain your brain. Push the limits with your thinking and learning. It’s not enough to passively learn new information; you learn things complex enough you feel mentally challenged.
- Get uncomfortable. Routine is the enemy of your brain. The brain preserves its cognition by continually building and rebuilding connections between its cells. Break out of your routines and try something difficult. Your brain will be better for it.
- Be social. Isolation is another enemy for your healthy brain. Social activity and interaction keeps your brain healthy, and is something that often falls by the wayside in later life – especially for seniors who tend to live alone or apart from family members. Staying social will keep you mentally (and likely emotionally) better positioned for aging.
Key Terms Mentioned in this Interview