Pill to treat sleep disorders being used by students to gain 'edge'

Pill to treat sleep disorders being used by students, executives to gain 'edge'
Published: Nov. 11, 2013 at 11:43 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 11, 2013 at 11:47 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - If you could take a smart pill to give yourself an edge at work or school would you do it?

There's a new trend among local students, taking a drug designed to treat sleep disorders. And it's not just students who are trying to give their brains some clarity, and their bodies a boost of energy.

Some are taking a drug to rev up performance. It's meant for  people with narcolepsy, folks who literally nod off in the middle of the day.

According to a sleep expert, modafinil is designed to correct an abnormality in a patient's brain chemistry.

"So they have a condition where they really require these medications in order to stay alert," says Dr. Tom Uhde at MUSC psychiatry.

Known as rovigil and nuvigil, these prescription medications stimulate the brain helping narcolepsy and sleep apnea patients stay awake during the day. The drugs are also prescribed to shift workers and those on military duty.

Now, these meds are being popped by students, executives and techies aiming for peak performance with less sleep.

It's well known some college kids abuse stimulant medications such as adderall to pull all-nighters. But using modafinil is now seen as a "smart drug" that offers an "edge."

Dr. Michael Tapert has been prescribed the drug, and sometimes takes small doses. The eye surgeon retired following a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The medication helps counter the fatigue of MS.

"It helps bring more clarity," Dr. Tapert said."I do a lot of reading, it helps make reading much easier. It makes recollection of definitions much easier."

Doctors find it helpful for patients such as Tapert.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the number of patients taking modafinil for narcolepsy or sleep apnea increased less than three fold.

But it  jumped  more than 15 fold for other uses. The study shows 89 percent of the patients did not have a sleep disorder, but researchers couldn't say how often or why it was prescribed.

With Dr. Tapert's years in medicine, he understands a pill would be tempting to professionals considering the long hours demanding work and little rest.

But there's a downside, he can feel nauseated, off balance and the effects lasts too long.

"With a 15 hour duration of action, that puts me into late at night that I'm still fairly alert," Tapert said.

Bottom line, if you're looking to improve your performance, experts say shut off your engine get some sleep.

While experts recommend students stay away from drugs in favor of good old fashioned sleep, they say the new psycho-stimulants do not appear to be  habit forming.

But the long term effects are not known.

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