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Harvard Magazine: Deep into Sleep

July 1, 2005



By Craig Lambert, Harvard Magazine

While researchers probe sleep's functions, sleep itself is becoming a lost art.

"Not long ago, a psychiatrist in private practice telephoned associate professor of psychiatry Robert Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist specializing in sleep research. He asked whether Stickgold knew of any reason not to prescribe modafinil, a new wakefulness-promoting drug, to a Harvard undergraduate facing a lot of academic work in exam period.

"The question resonated on several levels. Used as an aid to prolonged study, modafinil is tantamount to a “performance-enhancing” drug—one of those controversial, and often illegal, boosters used by some athletes. In contrast to wakefulness-producing stimulants like amphetamines, modafinil (medically indicated for narcolepsy and tiredness secondary to multiple sclerosis and depression) does not seem to impair judgment or produce jitters. “There’s no buzz, no crash, and it’s not clear that the body tries to make up the lost sleep,” reports Stickgold. “That said, all sleeping medications more or less derange your normal sleep patterns. They do not produce normal sleep.” Even so, the U.S. military is sinking millions of dollars into research on modafinil, trying to see if they can keep soldiers awake and on duty—in Iraq, for example—for 80 out of 88 hours: two 40-hour shifts separated by eight hours of sleep.

“No—no reason at all not to,” Stickgold told the psychiatrist. “Not unless you think sleep does something.”

Read the entire article and featured sidebars on the Harvard Magazine website.


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