WESTCHESTER, Ill.The wake-promoting drug modafinil serves as an effective countermeasure to the adverse effects of overnight sleep deprivation on working memory, but only when task difficulty is moderate. Despite the efficacy of this drug, modafinil should only be taken under the supervision of a sleep specialist, according to a study published in the November 1 issue of the journal SLEEP.

Robert Joseph Thomas, MD, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Mass., measured the effects of a single 200-mg dose of modafinil on the working memory of eight medication-free men, between the ages of 21 and 35, following overnight sleep deprivation. Performance was enhanced by modafinil only at an intermediate level of task difficulty and was associated with the recruitment of increased cortical activation volumes. Strong and consistent individual differences in performance were noted on the working memory tasks.

“The study results may serve as a reality check on the human quest for endless performance enhancement,” said Thomas. “While there is probably room for further safe enhancement of cognition under a variety of stressors, ultimately it is an intricate interplay of our individual make-up and the biological limits to which a given system can be safely pushed. Such limits are well known for physical performance.”

The larger question for society, as medically safe cognitive performance enhances are developed, is the limit of fair drug use in otherwise healthy individuals, noted Thomas, who suggests there will never be a “right” answer, although it will make for necessary and vigorous ethical debate. When sleep deprivation is intrinsic to a job, drugs like modafinil seem a reasonable option, as long as our expectations are biologically realistic, Thomas added.

Sleep deprivation is a common result of occupational demands such as rotating-shift work schedules and lifestyle choices that prevent an individual from getting sufficient sleep.

Although each person has an individual sleep need, most adults require an average of seven to eight hours of sleep each night to feel alert and well rested. Studies show that at least one in five adults reports getting an insufficient amount of sleep.

Research has linked insufficient sleep to such health problems as high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and obesity. Not getting enough sleep can also deter the body’s ability to fight off illnesses.

Those suspecting they might have a sleep disorder are encouraged to make an appointment with a specialist at a sleep facility accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).

SLEEP is the official journal of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, LLC, a joint venture of the AASM and the Sleep Research Society.

SleepEducation.org, a website maintained by the AASM, provides information about the various sleep disorders that exist, the forms of treatment available, recent news on the topic of sleep, sleep studies that have been conducted and a listing of sleep facilities.

To arrange an interview with an AASM spokesperson regarding this study, please contact Jim Arcuri, public relations coordinator, at (708)492-0930, ext. 9317, or jarcuri@aasm.org.