March 9, 2010
March 9, 2010
March 9, 2010
They call it the professional’s pill: Why more middle-class people are taking a drug they believe will make them smarter
March 9, 2010
Sandra is an air steward. She pops a tab every time she crosses the Atlantic to make sure she’s perky on landing. Gerry uses them during exams to give his concentration a boost. Simon, a junior doctor, takes one during the night shift to keep sleep at bay and his brain sharp.
You won’t find their pill of choice on the shelves of your local head shop but there’s growing evidence that high-flying professionals and stressed-out students are relying on brain-boosting drugs to quicken their thinking and keep them awake.
This week in Britain, scientists urged the government to bring the closet phenomenon of so-called smart drugs into the open, claiming their use is spreading across all sectors of society from surgeons to soldiers.
Researchers from Cambridge University warned that the drugs, which were designed to help people with neurological disorders like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Alzheimer’s and brain injury, are now being used for reasons far beyond their original purpose by uptight executives, multi-tasking mothers and exhausted shift-workers who need a chemical pick-me-up.
No self-respecting GP would prescribe these powerful brain-changing drugs to a patient suffering from poor concentration or tiredness, so users are turning to the internet, where a multitude of websites offer them for sale.
In Ireland, customs officers are at the coalface of this new craze, with increasing quantities of cognitive-enhancement drugs such as Modafinil and Ritalin being shipped into the country illegally every year.
In 2008, 1,250 tablets of Modafinil, a sleep inhibitor, were seized at ports and airports, rising to 1,920 last year.
In the first two months of this year, 170 tablets were found. Seizures of Ritalin, dubbed ‘kiddie cocaine’ in the US where it is doled out like candy to school-going children, have been lower but significant all the same with more than 612 units found since 2007.
Here, Modafinil is sold under the trade name Provigil. In November, its manufacturers Cephalon were granted permission by the Irish Medicines Board to market the drug for the treatment of excessive daytime sleepiness associated with sleep apnoea.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen is among those who suffer from this condition, which periodically causes breathing to stop during sleep.
Originally developed in France, Modafinil, which is also licensed to treat narcolepsy — a disorder marked by sudden uncontrollable attacks of daytime sleep — is the first of a new generation of wake-promoting drugs which targets the sleep/wake centres in the brain. It works by activating sleep-suppressing neurons fooling the mind into believing it is time to be alert.
This pharmaceutical prototype has the power to keep a person awake and focussed for up to 90 hours running, without the jitteriness or poor concentration that other stimulants like amphetamines or caffeine are known to produce.
Proponents say it works without causing a crash after its effects have worn off and does not create any sense of euphoria in the brain thereby limiting its potential for abuse.
The use of Modafinil within the American military is well-documented where it has been approved for use on air force missions, allowing troops to stay awake for days at a time and complete operations as quickly as possible.
In Britain, the drug was approved for use in 2002, and since then has surged in popularity. The number of prescriptions for stimulants like it has nearly doubled in recent years, rising from 458,000 in 2004 to 751,000 in 2008. A Nature magazine poll of 1,400 respondents, mostly scientists and academics, suggested that one in five had used ‘smart drugs’.
Fears that stay-awake pills are increasingly being used as ‘lifestyle drugs’ are strengthening, especially since their long-term effects on the brain are still unknown.
Some neuroscientists also worry that drugs like this will turn humans into mechanistic beings who pop a pill when they need a brain boost rather than opting for a brisk walk or a good night’s sleep.
Pharmaceutical advances like this could make cosmetic neurology as popular as beauty enhancements, they claim. And there are ethical concerns about the unfair advantage such drugs give to users over their peers in academic settings. In the US, surveys show that an estimated 16-20pc of US college students take smart drugs to help their memory and keep them alert. The drugs may especially help in subjects like mathematics and science by aiding students to complete puzzles and remember long chains of digits.
Last week, one of Britain’s leading psychologists called for an official university-wide strategy to tackle student misuse of prescription drugs like Modafinil…
March 9, 2010
Perhaps I overestimated the bien-pensant British understanding of “modernity.” When the BBC reported that “at Tripoli’s ultra-modern airport…you could be almost anywhere in the world,” I expected at bare minimum a Starbucks, a fake Irish pub, and (this is the ultra bit) a bank of vending machines dispensing iPods and noise-canceling headphones.
Well, perhaps we came through Libya’s spillover airport, its Midway or Stansted, because this is “anywhere in the world” only in some mad, dystopian-novel sense. Available for purchase are Egyptian gum, cheap watches celebrating 40 years of the Libyan revolution, and glossy magazines with Hugo Chavez on the cover. Sinister men in baggy uniforms, all puffing Marlboros, shout at each other and disappear with my passport. I later find out this bit of theater was required because I possess a passport stamp from Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. After some discussion, my personal government apparatchik informs the entire staff of Libyan customs that, on orders from high, this particular learned elder of Zion can be allowed through.
It’s not entirely clear why I am in Libya, although it would have been rude to refuse a trip funded by the generous and, according to their hired help, deeply misunderstood comrades of the Qaddafi Foundation. At the behest of Saif al-Qaddafi—Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s slick, London-educated son and dauphin—our group of journalists is being shuttled to the country in an effort to demonstrate a new Libyan openness and, it is implied, a future rather different from the past. Personally, I’m more interested in sneaking a glimpse at the world’s only Islamo-socialist personality cult.
The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
It doubtless keeps Qaddafi pere awake at night that had he tamped down the rhetorical goofiness and sartorial excess (and maybe a terrorist bombing or two) his country could have been like Castro’s Cuba or Sandinista Nicaragua in the eyes of the West. In the 1970s, Libya promoted itself to European revolutionary tourists and gringo sugarcane harvesters in Havana as a socialist alternative with a moderate religious component. The regime took part in all sorts of radical-chic nastiness too: bombing a German disco full of American soldiers, talking nonsense about collectivizing the Sahara, and providing the Provisional IRA with the weapons needed to kill wayward Catholics…
The Colonel’s Private Junkyard
Libya ought to at least resemble a wealthy country, with its vast oil reserves and all those desperate politicians willing to do almost anything in exchange for access to them. Yet Tripoli is covered from end to end in garbage. Among the few benefits of living in a dictatorship, I had presumed, were that the trains run on time, crime is low, and armies of revolutionary trash collectors ensure that tourists tell their friends the country might not have elections but is at least exceptionally clean.
Remove the oil economy, and it isn’t entirely clear what Libyans do for money. The only shops I spot are selling either vegetables or cigarettes, sometimes both. There are markets trading in all manner of junk: old sewing machines, toilets, fake perfume (Hugo Boos seems particularly popular). The most frequently promoted product (aside from the ubiquitous face of Qaddafi staring down from countless billboards) is, inexplicably, corn oil. After decades of crippling trade sanctions under an aging and increasingly batty dictator, and with no tourism industry to speak of, Libya’s economy is a shambles. In their latest Index of Economic Freedom, the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal rank the country 171st out of 179, only slightly edging out the Union of the Comoros and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Besides sucking the economic life out of Tripoli, Qaddafi determined that the capital city, once a playground for Italian and British colonizers, must also be denuded of fun. Alcohol, which for years helped people forget they lived in Libya, is prohibited. Nonalcoholic beer is available in our hotel (a five-star, though it appears to have been graded on a curve), but only to placate (or taunt) the few Western visitors who pass through. The pious Muslims of Libya are not unlike vegetarians, surrounding themselves with pointless facsimiles of the forbidden, from beef bacon to bottles of booze with all the booze removed.
No matter how hard governments try, though, it is increasingly difficult to close a country to all malignant Western cultural influences. The tighter the controls, the more pedestrian the content that sneaks through. Libyan teenagers have scrawled “50 Cent” and “Tupac” throughout Tripoli’s largest souk. On a crumbling yellow wall outside a bootleg DVD shop, someone was inspired—doubtless by a contraband hip-hop CD—to scribble “fuck yo” in defiance of nothing much at all. Inside the DVD shop, the Hollywood film Fat Albert is available for a few dollars—popular, presumably, because the title character, like most Libyans, lives in a junk yard…