As pharmaceutical capabilities expand, is there a limit on the issuing of medications to improve human performance? Steriods and other substances that improve physical prowess, have been roundly banned for safety and ethical concerns, but what about medications that improve mental ability?
Researchers have found that 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.
Currently, despite the efficacy of this drug, authorities state that modafinil should only be taken under the supervision of a sleep specialist.
In the current study, 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.