Job Safety

February 2, 2005

A Pill for Alertness?

I talk a lot about alertness and its importance to safer work. And we emphasize getting enough sleep and eating properly. But what if it turns out that a simple pill will keep you alert? What if a pill can improve your memory? Well it seems, such medications are not that far away. In a fascinating article in the Dana Foundation newsletter these incredible new (and old) medications are reviewed with considerable optimism about their potential.

There are three “cognitive enhancers” under study, modafinil (Provigil), methylphenidate (Ritalin) and donepezil. These drugs currently have accpted medical uses. Ritlin is commonly prescribed for attention deficit disorder (ADD) in children and donepezil is prescribed for Alzheimer’s Disease. But when used by healthy individuals these compounds can have the effect of enhancing brain function.

Modafinil has been shown to enhance processing speed and improve multitasking ability. Pilots taking the drug showed a remarkable improvement in their ability to learn and performed better in emergency drills and landing sequence exercises.

Ritalin “Vitimin R” is used by college students to improve exam performance. Students are willing to risk addiction to the drug for the extra edge it gives them.

The Pentagon is particularly interested in alertness and learning enhancement. Mistakes under stress in combat add to the damage from war. If a means can be developed to reduce these errors, even slightly, war will still be terrible but possibly more rational.

What is the downside? The brain has evolved over millions of years to cope with the stress of life. Changing the brain’s chemistry may have long term effects we do not fully understand.

But the science is fascinating. I remain open to anything that can improve job performance, learning and human happiness.