Sleep on it

August 24, 2005

FEELING BLEARY this morning? Up too late or too early? Medical science has now got a drug for you.

Wake Forest University researchers recently reported that they've found a compound that temporarily restores normal cognitive functioning and short-term memory in the sleep-deprived, at least in tested monkeys. Human tests are under way.

No, the chemical, labeled CX717, isn't coffee, which offers the potential for overstimulation and addiction. This new drug apparently improves the functioning of certain chemical receptors in certain parts of the brain without arousing the whole brain.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. Defense Department partly funded the research. Imagine if soldiers could stay mentally alert round the clock, not to mention emergency service and hospital workers. There's some thought that Alzheimer's patients could benefit, too.

But for a tense economy that runs on productivity gains - and a hyper society that values staying on the ball 24/7 - this offers an alluring fountain of youth ripe for abuse. Businessmen crossing time zones, night-shift workers, students cramming for tests, drivers at the wheel too long all might clamor for this drug - and not necessarily for the better.

Not to demean this breakthrough, but we can't avoid noting that sleep-inducing drugs are today's next big thing from the big pharmaceutical companies. Americans, having been flooded with antidepressants, are now being encouraged to medicate the first sign of sleeplessness. A pill at bedtime, one in the morning. What could be easier?

On second thought, perhaps we all might want to sleep on that.

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