Provigil, a wake-promoting drug used to treat certain sleep disorders like narcolepsy, is also being used by some without the sleep disorder to keep them alert and attentive, according to an ABC News report.
"People have used it to try to get an edge at studying at school. It's becoming like Ritalin where people are taking it that don't have anything. But they're using it to try to increase their alertness," Dr. Philip Gehrman, Ph.D., CBSM, clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania, told HuffPost.
However, doctors told ABC News that it is not known if the drug is safe for use long-term, as there has not been any research on this specifically.
"It's very tempting, but I think long-term it's a bad idea," Dr. Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, told ABC News. "We actually know very little about the long-term effects."
There are also side effects associated with the drug, according to the National Institutes of Health, which include headaches, nausea, back pain, burning or tingling skin, and more severely, rashes, hives, problems with breathing or swallowing, anxiety, depression and hallucinations. (For more on the side effects of Provigil, click here.)
In addition, people need to realize that the drug is not a replacement for sleep, and if they take it and don't get enough sleep, they will still experience the negative health effects of sleep deprivation, Gehrman explained.
"They're just kind of masking how they feel during the day, and so all the negative health consequences of not getting sleep still apply," he added.
In fact, it says on the Provigil website: "PROVIGIL does not take the place of getting enough sleep. Follow your doctor's advice about good sleep habits and using other treatments."
Provigil was first approved by the FDA as a treatment for narcolepsy. It was hailed because it was an alternative to stimulants, which were the only other treatment for narcolepsy at the time, but had a lot of side effects, were easy to build up tolerance to, and could be abused, Gehrman said.
Provigil's use was later expanded to treat people with shift work sleep disorder and certain cases of sleep apnea, where the sleep apnea is already being treated but sleep problems still persist, he said. The military has also done some work with the drug to see if it could help troops stay awake for extended periods of sleep deprivation.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has released a statement on off-label use of Provigil, saying: "Provigil should be used only under the supervision of a doctor for the treatment of excessive sleepiness caused by narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea or shift work disorder."
Use of Provigil among people without sleep disorders isn't new, though. TechCrunch reported back in 2008 about an executive who was able to work 20 hours a day while on the drug, even though it hasn't been shown to be safe for use for this purpose.
Athletes have gotten in hot water, too, over taking the drug. Kelli White, a U.S. sprinter, tested positive for modafinil on a drug test, and subsequently had her World Track and Field Championships medals stripped from her in 2004, BBC News reported.
For more on Provigil, watch the ABC News report above.
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