Like Viagra for your brain

Professionals use them for jet lag, students to pass exams, soldiers to stay alert. Brain-enhancing drugs are the latest fix – and they're legal

Do you face a mid-afternoon lull that even a double espresso cannot break? Is jet lag the bane of your life, or does that pile of revision seem insurmountable? Or perhaps you're just fed up yawning your way out of the pub at 9.30pm. Whether modern life leaves you struggling to keep up or just totally exhausted, the answer could be as simple as popping a pill.

Using drugs to improve performance in sport is nothing new – expect doping to be a hot topic at this summer's Beijing Olympics – but what about pills that do nothing to enhance biceps, glutes, or abs, and instead target the body's most powerful "muscle" – the brain?

The idea that pills could boost memory or allow weary workers to put in 24-hour shifts evokes the dystopia of Aldous Huxley's 1932 science-fiction novel Brave New World, in which humanity depends on a government-prescribed "happy" drug called Soma.

Some scientists are warning that a generation of artificially enhanced thinkers could soon become science-fact, as an increasing number of people, from stockbrokers and soldiers to students and shelf-stackers, look for something more effective than caffeine to boost performance.

The medicines they use are called cognitive- or brain-enhancing drugs. But you won't find a dedicated shelf in your local chemist's. Instead, healthy people are popping prescription pills designed to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy or even Alzheimer's.

The drugs of choice are Ritalin and Modafinil. Prescribed to ADHD sufferers to help calm them down, Ritalin, dubbed "kiddie coke" by some, can boost concentration and alertness in healthy people. Modafinil, meanwhile, is designed to combat narcolepsy, but it can also stave off tiredness in those without a diagnosed sleep disorder.

The British Medical Association believes this kind of drug abuse is growing rapidly, as healthy pill-poppers dupe doctors into writing prescriptions, or buy medicines from unlicensed online pharmacies, usually based abroad.

The true scale of the problem in the UK is unknown but studies in America suggest brain-boosting drug use is rife. A 2005 survey of more than 10,000 US university students found that 4-7 per cent of them had tried ADHD drugs at least once to pull pre-exam all-nighters. At some institutions, more than one in four students said they'd sampled the pills.

Anecdotal evidence suggests as many as three in four classical musicians in the US take beta blockers such as Inderal, which block adrenalin receptors in the brain, helping to control conditions such as high blood pressure, or stage fright in jittery musicians.

Philip Harvey, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, says his work has been transformed by Modafinil, which he takes to combat jet lag. Unlike in the UK, American doctors can prescribe the drug to night-shift workers as well as to narcoleptics. "I often fly to Europe to give talks," Harvey says. "I used to travel the day before to give myself time to recover, but with Modafinil I can now give a talk the same day I arrive and feel like I've had a normal night's sleep."

Harvey says he has no urge to take the drug more frequently, but many do. And it's not difficult to understand why. In 2003, scientists at Cambridge University found a single dose of Modafinil helped healthy male university students perform better at mental planning tests, complete puzzles more accurately and remember longer chains of digits.

The drug has also been tested by British and American armed forces, where it has been shown to help soldiers stay alert during night-time operations. Scientists say that the drug allows 48 hours of continuous wakefulness with few side effects, mild headaches being the most common.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Modafinil is that users don't have to pay back sleep "debt"; a standard eight hours is apparently enough to make up for no sleep the night before. Such impressive results have led some scientists to predict a world with little or no need for sleep, where drugs will allow us to put in 22-hour days. Little wonder, then, that the drugs companies are reportedly racing to develop the world's first marketed brain- enhancing drugs. If, or when, they do, they could make the launch of the impotence drug Viagra look like a damp squib.

"It could change society as we know it," says Barbara Sahakian, a psychiatrist at Cambridge University, who has studied cognitive-enhancing drugs. "The drive for the self-enhancement of brain power is likely to be as strong if not stronger as in the realms of enhancement of beauty or sexual function."

But that is not necessarily a good thing, Sahakian warns. "One concern I have is the lack of regulation when people buy these drugs on the internet, where they can't be absolutely certain what they are getting, or whether they should be taking them. More seriously, we have to ask how this might affect society. We control drug use in sport, so will we do the same for students who take drugs before exams, for example? And if some students or workers take them, will the others feel pressure to do the same to keep up?

"We also have to ask what this says about us – why is it that we are always looking for the quickest way around the problem? And why do we so often look to the answer in drugs rather than trying psychological therapies – or just making more time to sleep?"

Whether or not these questions can be answered, brain enhancers look set to challenge caffeine as the pick-me-up of choice in the world's offices, classrooms and war zones. Last year, Foresight, a Government think tank, said drugs such as Modafinil could be "as common as coffee" within a decade or two. That will delight hard-working professionals like Philip Harvey, who want to improve their work-life balance. But Barbara Sahakian's parting words are cautionary: "One person might say cognitive enhancing drugs are good because they allow us to get home early because we finish our work sooner, but others worry that we are working towards a 24-hours-a-day society pushed to the limits of human endurance."

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