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Can a pill make you brainy?

By Angus Watson

Imagine a drug that makes you more intelligent. It reduces tiredness, while boosting your memory, work ethic, and concentration. Best of all, it has no side-effects.


Some claim that modafinil is that drug. Academics in the USA and UK have been taking it for years. If it works, shouldn’t we all be using it? We’re happy to take supplements like Vitamin C to improve our bodies, so why not a supplement to improve our minds?


I had to try it. I work at home as a freelance writer. I’m ok most mornings, but my afternoon work ethic would shame a Spaniard. A pill to increase my productivity would be marvellous. So I decided to take modafinil for two weeks. Would I become more intelligent and hard-working? Or would my hair fall out and kidneys fail?


First step was research. Is it as danger-free as claimed?


Modafinil is manufactured by Cephalon under the trade name Provigil. It’s used, under prescription, to treat conditions like narcolepsy that cause daytime sleepiness. Off prescription, as in illegally, it’s used by students and academics, and reportedly by the US and UK military, to improve mental energy and concentration.


“Plenty of people use modafinil,” says Barbara Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, “I’ve found an Oxford University professor who takes it fortnightly for one day of really hard work, a colleague at Cambridge who takes it to get though parties, another who takes it for jet-lag, and a woman with young children and a demanding job who uses modafinil to deal with lack of sleep.”


So respectable types use it, but how does it work?


“There are a few theories,” explains Sahakian “but nobody really knows.” Hmmm. So I was about to take a drug that definitely does something to the brain, but nobody’s sure what.


“You’re taking a high risk,” Baroness Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist and Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, told me. “Our brains are who we are. They are hugely delicate. You’re risking your whole life.”


Moreover, modafinil is by no means side-effect free. A huge range of possibilities include headaches, nausea, nervousness, diarrhoea, back pain, reduced appetite and abnormal ejaculation.


Well, I thought, I get the first five of those anyway, and the last two sound, respectively, useful and fascinating. I spoke to Brighton-based ‘transhumanist and philosopher’ David Pearce. He’s all for taking brain enhancing drugs: “Imagine if you could take a pill to remove jealousy?” I was convinced. I’d be a pioneer for a brighter future.


The first step was getting prescription-only drugs without a prescription. A doctor friend said no doctor would give them to me, and that I was an idiot for taking drugs I didn’t need.


I tried the manufacturer Cephalon. Perhaps I could be a clinical test? No, they said. Possibly because they’d been fined $425m for promoting drugs’ ‘off-label’ use.


So I ordered them online, but they never came. Exasperated, I tried a randomly-picked doctor. He gave me a prescription in exchange for a fiver’s “admin fees”, in cash. Brilliant.


The guilt of using an ill-gained prescription wore off when the chemist charged me £75 for 30 100mg tablets.


The Trial

Transhumanist Pearce advised 200mg daily, but I started with 100mg. If I was to go insane, wet myself, etc, I reasoned, it would best to do it only a bit.


I sat in my little flat in Fulham, London, and got on with a big writing project. After an hour I was feeling happy, horny and irresponsible, with no appetite for breakfast.


An hour later I wasn’t dead, so I took a second 100mg pill. This one really hit home. I became lightheaded and euphoric. I began singing along to my while-I-work music, and the keyboard keys felt oddly fizzy, like touching something when you have pins and needles. At ten in the morning, alone in my flat, I was off my head. This is what a drug addict’s life must be like, I thought. Quite fun.


Modafinil was meant to improve my work ethic and concentration, but I didn’t feel like working. My fingers wouldn’t hit the right keys, anyway. I tried a difficult sudoku puzzle, but didn’t have the patience. My mind was really rushing. Paranoia began to bloom from my gut. I phoned transhumanist David Pearce, and had a long chat about alerted states of mind. That calmed things. I forced myself to have lunch, then worked hard all afternoon. Perhaps eating was the key?


I had dinner with a friend that evening. I was conscious of being overly chatty, but also witty and devilishly incisive. I told her about the modafinil trail at the end. “You were a little more obnoxious than usual” she said.


Back home, I found myself standing in the bathroom doing a sudoku puzzle at 1.30 a.m., and didn’t get to sleep until two.


The next morning I took 200mg in one go. Soon I felt a bit sick, muddle-headed, panicky and sweaty. But I pressed on, calmed down and did a good morning’s work. At lunchtime I went for a run, to see if the pills would make me faster or give me a heart attack.


They did neither, but they did make me braver. On the run, I came upon a group of three shambling youths; caps perched ridiculously high, jeans slung hilariously low. One of them tossed away a plastic bag. I said ‘Oi!’, scooped up the bag on the run, and stuffed it in a bin, glowering and wagging a finger at the three surly yobbos. I wouldn’t normally do that. Luckily, I was gone before they remembered to stab me.


That night was my monthly boys’ boozing evening. I was overly loquacious, perhaps, but my brain felt cleaner, free from beer-induced fluffiness. Tumbling into bed at two, I didn’t set my alarm, reasoning that I’d be unable to work until noon, so I might as well sleep. I woke up at 7.30 a.m., feeling absolutely fine, and beavered away like a school swot the week before A Levels.


Could modafinil be that holy grail: an effective anti hangover drug? Scientific endeavour demanded that I drink much more the next night to find out.


I had the perfect testing ground; meeting my new girlfriend’s friends for the first time, in achingly trendy north London. I was modafinil-talkative at dinner as I knocked back gallons of wine, then modafinil-extrovert in the bar afterwards, for example coercing a group of reluctant young lesbians into singing ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen. I remember nothing of the taxi ride home.


On Saturday, I discovered that it’s possible, in fact, to be very hungover after taking modafinil tablets.


I recovered by Sunday, and, settling into the modafinil, my work took off. Panic disappeared, concentration and output sky-rocket. I write a newsletter every Monday morning for a dating website. It usually takes three difficult hours. This time I did it in two, and enjoyed it. I tried a cryptic crossword, and got six clues, which is five more than ever before. I smashed two of my own sudoku records (yes, I do a sudoku with a timer. I also like science fiction).


I don’t think modafinil increases your memory though, or makes you more intelligent. It makes you think you’re more intelligent though. I did a pub quiz. We won, but we won despite, rather than because of, me. I was convinced I was right every time. Driest place in the world? “Atacama Desert!”, I cried. “Isn’t it Antarctica?” Asked the guy who’d been getting all the other questions right. But I was convinced, and overruled him. He was right.


The rest of the two week trail, however, was excellent. I did tons of good work, gained two new regular slots in newspapers (we freelancers love regular slots), lost four pounds in weight, and cleared an Augean stable of admin.


Most importantly, although she’d thought I was odd at times, things are still going well with the new girlfriend (it’s four weeks now).


Aftermath

Modafinil doesn’t make you more intelligent, but, in the right dose, it definitely improves concentration, enthusiasm, confidence and happiness. You still need will-power to work hard, but modafinil makes it easier.


But at what cost? I’m not addicted, because I only have four pills left and I’m too tight to fork out another £75, but might my brain be damaged irreparably?


More importantly, is false brain enhancement acceptable? It’s said that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk could only function after overcoming his shyness with vast quantities of the spirit of Raki, and he founded modern Turkey. So it worked for him. Although he did die of cirrhosis aged 58.


Will we, in the future, improve our brains with clean, safe drugs? Will we all become Mozart, Dickens and Jesus rolled into one? Transhumanist Pearce thinks so, and looks forward to it. Neuroscientist Greenfield disagrees: “Drugs will always have side-effects. It you want to improve your output, you should question your lifestyle and goals. Not take drugs. Do we really want to control our brains until we have a sanitised world where everyone’s the same?”


Professor Sahakian treads a middle ground. “There are better ways to enhance ourselves, like education and exercise. If there are clean drugs that could make work easier and improve our lives, that would be great, but we’d have to be careful not to push ourselves to unpleasant limits.”


And I, the guinea pig, would like to see modafinil tested, then made available over the counter. We’re happy for people to take sleeping pills, for example, so why not ‘waking’ pills? Plus it would be nice to replenish my stash without bribing a doctor, or forking out £75.


Copyright The Daily Mail, photos Angus Watson


  © Copyright Angus Watson 2006