June 20, 2009 § 1 Comment
There’s been a lot in the press lately about cognitive enhancement drugs, popular in the military, on college campuses, among cutting edge geeks, parents of kids with ADD, and—as of now, I would guess—reporters.
I’m familiar with one of these drugs: Provigil, aka Modafinal. My psychopharm gave it to me a few years ago for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome but the dose was too strong and I felt like I was on speed. It was great for the first few hours. I went to a session after taking it and the doc was so impressed with my new, bright, lively personality, full of urbane chat…no more mopey girl…he perked right up like a dog offered a treat. That was the woman I could be, with a little gene tweaking—someone capable of a spectacular, multi-faceted career. I try not to dwell on it. I collapsed like a cheap umbrella in late afternoon.
Recently, I tried again, cutting the pill in thirds. I was pleasantly surprised: less excitement, no outsize charm, but much less crash. It’s effective for writing. I become very focused and the words ribbon out smoothly, no better than my usual words, and sometimes not on point, because they come so quickly, right off the assembly line. But I can adjust that. Aim the stream to the left. It’s better than sitting limply in the chair thinking about chocolate, aging, and how much my ass hurts.
The drug gives a narrow window, 2-3 hours, before I get jittery. The jitters aren’t too bad— dinner or a snack or a glass of wine will soothe me. So I save the drug for afternoon, which is when I need it anyway. I’m still good for morning writing.
After the jitters pass, I feel relaxed, happier than usual, and tend to go to sleep early. I don’t know how this drug works to keep people awake all night. One of the best things about it for me is that the energy jolt has a long tranquilizing tail. I hope the military keeps in mind individual reactions. (Yes, I know, nobody like me ends up in the army. Still.)
Some reporters have been very enthused and/or apprehensive about these new drugs, seeing a world of brains on steroids, the poor falling further behind and the affluent users burning out or paying some hideous price down the line. 20 years of a dozen more IQ points, then your brain shrivels to the size of a ferret’s, and the government has to erect large wildlife preserves for the ex-middle class. Addiction is a more immediate danger.
Modafinal works by blocking dopamine re-uptake in the brain, which is also what cocaine and crystal meth do. This has some scientists worried about addiction. Modafinal doesn’t work exactly the same—cocaine and meth not only slow the re-uptake of dopamine but also boost production, and whether that makes a longterm difference or only makes the addiction take root more slowly, nobody knows.
Brain researcher Karley Little said, “Normally, when something pleasurable happens, dopamine neurons pump the chemical into the gaps between themselves and related brain cells. ‘Dopamine finds its way to receptors on neighboring cells, triggering signals that help set off pathways to different feelings or sensations.” This means it ‘s used in lots of important brain functions, including the desire/reward system for eating, sex, and other necessary pleasures.
But unless it becomes criminalized, it will be used more and more widely. I don’t feel smarter on Modafinal. I might be less smart. But I’m able to work at times when I couldn’t, and if that’s very tempting to me, it will be irresistible for many.
I can’t take Modafinal more than a couple of times a week, or I get fatigue hangovers. It’s also very expensive, and insurance won’t pay. When my stash runs out, I may try buying it online from Canada. The difference is $1.73 a pill for Canadian generic to $15-$20 a pill for American Provogil. (Maybe I should move to Canada. A little stone house outside of Montreal, near the mountains, with fruit trees and a garden; I’d winter in Florida. Remember how Canadians welcomed draft dodgers in the ‘60’s? Do you think they’ll do that for U.S. healthcare refugees? No, I don’t think so either.)
But Modafinal and Adderall and the rest of the Ritalin-type drugs are only the first wave. Let’s see what Pfizer, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline bring us in a dozen years. I’m hoping for a little wand, the size of a candy cigarette, that I could use to touch my skull at various points—adjusting the (something) to tell the navigation system whether to go deep or shallow—and sizzle up whatever region I want.
Language. Memory. Desire. The kind of desire I felt in 2000-2003, or 1973—that would be sweet. Or sleep. Sleep at the touch of a wand: we could put our elderly (a class my generation will soon slop over and swamp) in Sleeping Beauty cities, waiting, outside of time, for when time produces the right drugs and habitable planets for the baby boomers to continue their usurpation of the universe.