France in the late eighties. Professor Micheal Jouvet, in a laboratory of the firm Lafon, makes a discovery. He has taken an antidepressant and adapted it to find that the resulting pill, when he takes it, has some incredible effects. He becomes super-productive, and when Baccalaureate students take it he sees a marked improvement on their studying before exams. The pill is hailed as “amazing”, christened modafinil and, in 1998, is approved by the FDA and used in the US to treat narcolepsy. The approval is later extended for modafinil to be used in the treatment of shift work sleep disorder and sleep apnoea, thus widening the exposure of the public to the drug from 250 000 to over 20 million.
Naturally, a product that enhances productivity, massively reduces the need for sleep (a couple of hours per night is apparently more than sufficient) and improves working memory is prime fodder for the black market. And so modafinil spread, amongst office workers, those in high powered jobs for whom eight hours spent asleep are eight hours wasted, and found its way across the Atlantic, before long falling into the hands of those most diligent and pressurised workers, Oxbridge students. From Oxford and Cambridge, it found its way north, to the University of York campus.
We spoke to three York students, Charles, Nick and David, who spent just under a week taking modafinil, noting its effects and seeing whether it did in fact live up to its reputation as a sleep-banishing wonder drug. A friend of theirs who has chosen to be referred to as ‘Tim’, had taken it before.
“I first took the drug towards the end of the Easter term. It’s the stress of being a Science student that made me want to try it. I’m a fresher, but my exams count towards my final grade this year. Keeping up a first year lifestyle and getting a first seemed pretty much impossible any other way”.
Although it sounds like an ‘extreme’ version of Proplus, or other more hardcore substances, modafinil is not thought to be an amphetamine-like stimulant. It is considered by researchers to be more a ‘wakefullness promoting agent’, and besides the more directly sleep-related uses it has medically, has also been applied successfully in the treatment of cocaine addiction, depression, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia. Charles says: “Choosing to sleep was always an option. The drug didn’t make us feel like we were stuck in a constant state of wakefulness. It was more like we just chose not to sleep”.
As Tim describes it, the effects appear miraculous: “In a typical modafinil-fuelled night, I take the drug with dinner, go to the pub with my friends and maybe watch a film, before getting in at around 1am and working for another eight hours. It’s a productive way of living; it lets me be sociable and academic at the same time.”
For the others the experience was entirely new. Compared to other substances which might find their way into student hands during their time at university, modafinil appears at first glance relatively harmless. It does not increase your heart rate, or your risk of getting cancer, and there is no evidence that it affects the likelihood of developing degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. A closer look reveals a few short term problems however. Some users develop skin rashes or headaches, and the body (if not the mind) still exhibits signs of sleep deprivation, which can become serious for those who stay on the drug for too long. Modafinil apparently also dramatically reduces the effectiveness of oral contraceptives. All being male, and undeterred by the possibility of rashes and headaches, all three agreed to take it for the same five days, noting the effects on themselves and comparing these with the other’s experience.
“She stayed awake for sixty hours, sleeping for just four. She ended up fainting from exhaustion and woke up blind”
At first there was no obvious difference. Charles says “People talk about the modafinil buzz, but there’s no high in the traditional sense. I was able to concentrate more easily, like my memory was improved. I could stay awake all night and do nothing but work without getting bored. I wasn’t ‘high’ so much as ‘enhanced’”.
On the first evening, each took a 200mg tablet of modafinil. According to Charles, “After an hour, none of us felt any different. But then I started to feel markedly more alert. I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a placebo, but then Nick became uncannily good at computer games, beating his friends three times in a row at Pro Evo. It was no coincidence.” David by contrast maintains that at first he found it difficult to concentrate on anything, claiming he felt “too energetic”. Modafinil coincidentally, is a banned stimulant in competitive sports; various athletes who took in the 2004 Olympics were later stripped of their medals after testing positive for the drug.
It’s clear why modafinil has also proven so popular in the academic pressure cookers of Oxford and Cambridge. Varsity (the Cambridge student paper), reported that around one in ten students studying there have admitted taking prescription medication such as modafinil without a prescription. The obvious applications of modafinil academically range from using it in an exam situation to increase alertness and thought processes, or whilst writing essays or sitting open exams to maximise the potential number of working hours. A member of the Board of Examiners at Cambridge nevertheless reserved judgement as to whether taking modafinil could be considered cheating until it was catagorically proven that taking the drug would put students “at an unfair advantage”.
To judge from what David, Charles and Tim say, it almost certainly would. Charles remembers the first night ‘under the influence’: “Nick and I did our seminar reading in record time, then headed to a friend’s for drinks and a film. By 7am I was starting to wonder if the whole thing was just a placebo and in reality I’d just pulled an all nighter. I was keen to see how true this was, so I went to bed and didn’t set an alarm, to see how long I’d sleep naturally. I woke up at 8.30 and felt fully refreshed, as if I’d had a full eight hours. I got to my 9.15 seminar on time and found it easy to grasp even the most complicated issues that were discussed.” Nick furthermore reports that all of the work he did without sleep was done “as well, or better as it would have been if I’d been ‘clean’”.
According to a government study quoted in The Times, modafinil, whilst increasing wakefulness, concentration, planning and decision making skills, gives subjects “no obviously toxic effects”. It is nevertheless known to be a habit-forming drug. Academic and Welfare officer Charlie Leyland is vociferous in her condemnation of its use, saying, “I would be wary of any performance enhancement that claims to reduce people’s need to sleep, a clear meddling with a person’s normal biological clock, which is bound to come with either short- or long-term repercussions. I can’t stand the thought of students coming out the other end of the uni-machine with a less independent work ethic than on entering.”
On their second night both David and Charles continued to be “ridiculously productive”, Charles after a total of ninety minutes sleep, David still not having slept at all. Amongst other things David managed to “sort out my photography – took loads of photographs the night before, complete a blog entry, do some writing and all of my seminar work”. In the spirit of scientific exploration, Charles decided to check his reactions “using the highly scientific ‘one person drops a ruler and the other catches it between their fingers’ method. My reaction times were twice as good at 2am than they had been at 6pm. My heart rate was the same, and I felt good in myself”.
There is a catch, however, as a student in York found to her cost. A friend describes: “With a Friday psychology exam looming, she stayed awake nearly sixty hours, sleeping for just four. She aced the exam, it’s true, but later in the evening she fainted from exhaustion and woke up blind. It took the longest two minutes of all our lives for her eyesight to return fully, and she developed shakes like I’ve never seen, which we couldn’t stop. She was fine the next morning, but it’s still a powerful warning”.
For Nick too the experience had already turned sour, the “short term repercussions” becoming all-too evident. After twenty hours without sleep, as the first day drew to its close, he was mid conversation with David when “my nose started to bleed uncontrollably. Blood was gushing, I completely freaked out”.
“I was mid-conversation and my nose started to bleed uncontrollably, blood was gushing. I completely freaked out”
Despite this unsettling experience Nick returned to a computer room and worked until the morning, simply plugging his nose with tissues as it continued to bleed. The following morning at breakfast with David, after a “completely erratic line of conversation”, Nick says he felt “drunk and paranoid”. Although the others at that stage had displayed no similar signs of disturbance, Nick felt that it would be prudent not to take any more pills himself.
Modafinil remains a comparatively little-understood drug, and people can react to it in a variety of ways. After he’d slept, Nick says, “I can’t really remember precisely how I spent the night. My whole feeling of how time was passing completely changed, it was like everything was happening more quickly”. Other smaller individual differences included those in appetite. Modafinil can have an appetite-suppressing effect, but of the three I spoke to, this was only the case for Charles.
“I found my appetite seriously diminished by taking modafinil. I took to skipping breakfast in favour of a light lunch late in the afternoon.” David experienced the opposite effect. “I ate like an animal. I had all three meals during the day, then two more at night, and a cheese toastie break at 5am.”
It appears that as long as you sleep for a short time each day, whether you feel tired nor not, then the ‘rebound’ coming off modafinil is negligible. A major danger seems to be the fact that whilst users feel no need to sleep, that does not mean that the need is not there. Charles, who slept for about two hours per night over the course of the ‘experiment’, finished with no discernible ill effects. For David on the other hand, it was a different story. By day four, having cracked and taken an hour’s sleep the previous night, the modafinil lifestyle had begun to take its toll. “My mental reasoning was extremely poor. I struggled to focus on conversations and remember what I was talking about, and I missed the day’s seminars. My eyesight went weird and I started wearing glasses, which I hadn’t had to do for ten months.”
“Physically, he looked rough, says Charles. He was completely exhausted, his cheeks were pasty and grey, and his body was exhibiting clear signs of sleep deprivation.”
That evening, David’s body finally caved. Stumbling back to his room after meeting some friends he passed out, waking up on the floor 14 hours later with no memory of how he got there. Charles chose not to take modafinil for a fifth night in a row, since, inconveniently, it does not mix well with alcohol, and he wanted to go to the Willow. Naturally though as a drug with a largely student fan base, this does happen from time to time. Tim, as a more ‘regular’ user has tried this before, and when probed by Charles to describe the experience would go no further than to say (mysteriously) “It fucks you up man”. He did however warn Charles Nick and David not to try it themselves.
Though Nick stopped early, it is possible that further symptoms may have manifested had he been less prudent. It is all too tempting to take full advantage of the perceived ability to continue indefinitely without sleep, as David learned to his cost. Friends of theirs, having heard about their experiment, tried modafinil for themselves.
“One friend tried the drug just once, and was plagued by serious, mind numbing headaches. Another couldn’t sleep for two days, despite spending 8 hours in bed per night trying.