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Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. We now sleep one-fifth less than we did a century ago: the National Sleep Foundation reports that adults under 55 average just 6.7 hours of shuteye per weeknight. In part, that’s because the 9 to 5 workday has become a relic of the past for many Americans. Somehow we also need to fit in time for ourselves, or for family and friends.
So the appeal of Provigil and of similar drugs that are sure to follow is obvious. Their development will mean that we’ve entered a new world in which we may be able to realize an impossible dream (If only there were more hours in the day). But are we just trading one problem for another?
Though considered safer and less likely to be addictive than the previous generation of stimulants, Provigil can be habit-forming. And because the drug is new, there are few long-term studies on its effects.
While the FDA initially approved Provigil only for people with narcolepsy, a disease of excessive daytime sleepiness, doctors soon were prescribing it for other conditions, such as the fatigue linked to depression and multiple sclerosis. Sales have soared since its introduction. In 2000, physicians wrote 350,000 new and refill prescriptions; by last year the number had risen to 1.7 million. Military researchers have used it, too, keeping pilots awake for 40 straight hours during simulated helicopter flights.
But Provigil is just the tip of the iceberg. Dale Edgar thinks he can top it.
Edgar, a neurobiologist, spent much of his career at Stanford University’s sleep research center. He left in 2000 to co-found the biotech firm Hypnion. At Stanford, Edgar, 48, gained fame when he discovered the functional role of the clock structure in the brain that keeps us awake. Known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, this structure rings like an alarm throughout the day, growing quietest in the predawn hours. At the same time, another system called “sleep homeostasis” tracks how long we’ve been up and makes us grow sleepy when we’ve been out of bed for too long. The balance of these two systems, Edgar realized, regulates our daily sleep-wake rhythms.