How do you prepare to study? Do you collate notes? Order a coffee? Temporarily deactivate Facebook? Get your highlighters in order? Or do you pop a pill to get you focused?
Last year some disturbing reports surfaced about students at American colleges relying on drugs to help them cope with ever-increasing workloads. Finding time to study, work and have a social life can be draining. Why not just reduce the amount of time you sleep? If we could free up those eight hours a day we use for sleeping then everything would be much easier, right? Modafinil, a prescription drug, does just that – sort of.
Modafinil is a wakefulness agent. It can keep you awake and alert when you’ve had little to no sleep. It can keep you awake for up to 10-12 hours beyond normal sleep thresholds before it be-gins to wear off. The precise chemical mechanism through which it promotes wakefulness is un-known, but modafinil has been proven effective at treating disorders such as ADHD, narcolepsy and Obstructive Sleep Apnoea. It is also prescribed to shift workers who regularly work night shifts in order to correct sleeping patterns. Modafinil is a prescription drug under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which means it is only legal to buy with a prescription. The unlicensed import, possession and distribution of modafinil is illegal. Modafinil is becoming increasingly popular in Australia with both students and workers as a way of fitting more work or study into a single day. Zoology student Alice* took modafinil to help her study during SWOTVAC last year. On modafinil, she was able to stay focused for a far longer period of time than normal. On modafinil, she said, two hours sleep could feel like eight, and she would re-member far more than she ordinarily would.
Alice reported that she purchased the modafinil for $3 from a friend, and that she had never had a bad experience on modafinil. However, she did concede that there were some side effects. “As it wears off your eyes and head begins to hurt and then you crash,” she said. Alice also reported that it was common to forget to eat while on modafinil. She had to make sure that she drank a bottle of water each time she took one so as to not get too dehydrated.
Alice hasn’t taken any modafinil since her final exam last year. She says she took it regularly last SWOTVAC because she hadn’t worked hard during the semester and was behind on her work. “I was really worried about exams, I thought I was going to fail and they were my last resort… a modafinil a day keeps the Unsatisfactory Progress Committee away,” she quipped. Having tried other study drugs, including speed, Alice chose modafinil for its relatively mild side effects. She says she is surprised by the number of people who take modafinil regularly, even during the semester. She herself has no plans to start taking them regularly. “I know they’re bad for you, and I feel bad about gaining an advantage over other students – I’m not going to take them so I can slack off,” she said.
Harry*, a first year medical student, takes modafinil every now and then to help him get through long days at uni. Since he started medicine, he has been taking modafinil once a month. He says it feels like he has just “woken up after a great nap” and it helps him concentrate for longer and retain more information the next day. He last took it four weeks ago, when he was tired and had a lot of uni work to get through.
Harry takes modafinil when he feels he needs to, but says he “would not care” if he were unable to do it again. In a busy SWOTVAC Harry will take five or six modafinil a week. Harry first learnt about modafinil during a pharmacology lecture at uni. One of his friends regularly buys a package online from India and he buys the pills off his friend. Harry says customs are unlikely to confiscate the drugs. He concedes that there are some drawbacks: “it’s easy enough to concentrate on the wrong thing, like if I start playing video games, I’ll be playing them for hours.”
Harry has never had a bad experience with the quality of the product, but once found that taking modafinil backfired. He took a modafinil two hours before a maths exam and found that the drug made him so overconfident that he didn’t bother to check his working. On balance, though, he feels that the benefits of modafinil when used correctly outweigh any ramifications.
Despite increasing concentration and energy levels, modafinil is not without side effects. Former president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Steve Hambleton warned against using the drug without a prescription. “This is a serious drug with serious side effects… there’s headaches, vomiting, aggression, anxiety, depression, and uneven heart beat,” he said. He said students should “get a good night’s sleep and eat well, exercise and that’s the best advice we can give. If [a drug] sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Regular modafinil use could have serious long-term health consequences. The precise way that modafinil promotes wakefulness is unknown and the long term-effects remain untested. The longest clinical trials for modafinil lasted 12 months ? the potential effects of a sustained modafinil habit are yet to be seen.
Even so, the short term effects are worrying. Both Alice and Harry mentioned headaches, which studies show are a common side effect, afflicting 34 per cent of participants. Nausea was found to effect 11 per cent, and diarrhoea six per cent. Modafinil caused increased nervousness in seven per cent of participants and five per cent of participants reported increased insomnia, anxiety and dizziness.
A modafinil during SWOTVAC could give you the edge you need to pass an exam, but it could also leave you biting your fingernails and shitting incessantly at 3am. After university you’ll never have the same amount of time to socialise – but then, you’ll probably never have to balance your social life, studies and paid employment again either.
Finding time for everything is difficult, but is modafinil the answer? Considering its legal status and untested nature, Farrago says no.
* Name changed