How Fighter Pilots Stay Sharp: Provigil

For a prescription drug classified as a schedule IV narcotic by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Provigil is relatively easy to obtain. (Unlike Ritalin, a highly addictive schedule II drug, modafinil is not habit forming and has shown no long-term negative side effects.) You can get it on the Internet, of course, but I decided to try the more legitimate route of consulting a doctor.

After briefly considering feigning narcolepsy, I played it straight, telling my M.D. that I'd heard people were using Provigil for sleep problems stemming from their unnatural schedules. Since I often write all night on deadline or fly all night on reporting trips, and must work the next day, well, maybe . . . "It sounds to me like you are doing something very similar to shift work," he said, with a hint of a smile. "Which Provigil is indicated for." Two hours later, the pharmacist handed over 30 pills, leaving my wallet $135 lighter, even after insurance. Brain enhancement doesn't come cheap.

A few days later, I popped 200 milligrams as I sat down at my desk after about five hours' sleep. I experienced no rush, lowered inhibitions, or enhanced feelings of self-worth. In fact it was hard to tell I was on anything at all (Provigil has few, and rare, side effects), except for the utter evaporation of my desire to return to sleep. One thing was certain: I was definitely more productive. A normal sleep-deprived work morning finds me discovering at noon that I've done nothing but click around online, reading blogs and sports news. On my first Provigil morning, I looked up to realize that I'd completed three hours of sustained work, burning through e-mails and pages of story notes without a moment's distraction.

Over the next few weeks, I tried Provigil in a variety of situations (while fighting off requests from friends to dish them a few pills), both sleep-deprived and not. The side effects were minimal (an occasional oddly intense sensation behind my eyes or a very mild nervous feeling) but nothing like those I experience after three cups of coffee. With a 100-mg dose I could dissolve any afternoon sleepiness, but I didn't necessarily feel much sharper at work. On 200 mg, however, my brain just seemed to lock in on the task at hand. While the drug was less a source of sudden insights than consistent, reliable comprehension, my productivity kept me riding smoothly over typical speed bumps, such as choosing the right word or grasping thorny scientific concepts. I couldn't help feeling that Provigil was earning back its price tag in the leg up it gave me in my work.

"You don't get something for nothing," warned James Swanson, a psychologist at the University of California–Irvine. If you want to postpone jet lag you can. But eventually it's going to catch up to you. If you use coffee to stay up on deadline all night, what do you think is going to happen? You crash. Modafinil is no different. There aren't magical properties." Swanson pointed out that whether it's Provigil or Ritalin, there are no "residual" effects. "You are not going to be smarter when the drug wears off." Indeed, I didn't feel any IQ boost when not on Provigil, and I couldn't say that the quality of my work was any better than normal.

Of course, Provigil wasn't intended to make me smarter in the first place; its cognitive effects on healthy people are serendipitous. With pharmaceutical companies cranking out promising new compounds to treat brain disorders like Alzheimer's, the next incidental cognitive enhancers may be more powerful, and more tempting to off-label users. "You can compare it to steroids in sports, where none of those were developed to enhance bodies," says Roger Stoll, executive chairman of Cortex Pharmaceuticals, a company working on a new class of potent ADHD meds. "The way this is developing, you aren't going to be able to stop it." Bioethicists worry that this coming flood of smart drugs will hasten our plunge into a 24/7, work-­obsessed society or devalue intellectual achievement in a brave new world of synthetic brain enhancement.

After my own experiment, I am not terribly concerned about becoming a brain-boosted automaton, any more than I would be after a diet of triple soy lattes. But while I may keep a little Provigil around for the occasional all-nighter, I found it doesn't enhance the qualities I really want more of: creativity, inspiration, passion for my work. For those I'll have to look elsewhere, and I think I'll start with a full night's sleep.