The Null Device

The war on sleep

New Scientist has an article on a new generation of sleep-control drugs, which promise to radically change the need for sleep, eroding this primal biological obstacle to an always-on society:
Modafinil is just the first of a wave of new lifestyle drugs that promise to do for sleep what the contraceptive pill did for sex - unshackle it from nature. Since time immemorial, humans have structured their lives around sleep. In the near future, we will, for the first time, be able to significantly structure the way we sleep to suit our lifestyles.
All the indications are that modafinil is extremely safe. The drug can have side effects, most commonly headaches, but up to now there have been no severe reactions, says Vaught. In fact, it is hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about modafinil, except that there may be unseen problems down the line as the drug becomes more widely used. "I think it's unlikely that there can be an arousal drug with no consequences," says Foster. In the long run, it is possible that casual users might have to keep upping their dose to get the same effect. Stanley has similar worries. "Is it a potential drug of abuse?" he asks. "Will it get street value? We'll see."
And modafinil isn't the latest; new drugs under development for the US military promise days of alertness with no degradation or side-effects, while other efforts are aimed at finding drugs to change the architecture of sleep; allowing one to get a dose of refreshing slow-wave sleep (normally only reached through hours of the less profitable fast-wave variety) in a short session:
Deadwyler kept 11 rhesus monkeys awake for 36 hours, throughout which they performed short-term memory and general alertness tests (Public Library of Sciences Biology, vol 3, p 299). At that level of sleep deprivation, a monkey's performance would normally drop to the point where it could barely function at all, but Deadwyler found that CX717 had remarkable restorative powers. Monkeys on the drug were doing better after 36 hours of continual wakefulness than undrugged monkeys after normal sleep.
"It is possible that pharmaceuticals will allow you a condensed dose of sleep," he says, "and we are not that far away from having drugs that put you to sleep for a certain length of time." He predicts you could soon have tablet combining a hypnotic with an antidote or wakefulness promoter designed to give you a precise number of hours' sleep. "A 4, 5 or 6-hour pill."
The article finishes with the warning that, as soon as these drugs become available, many people may eliminate most of their sleep. Which makes sense, though the question arises of long-term side-effects; might the lack of downtime during which the brain performs various housekeeping tasks not increase the likelihood of neurological problems? And if you're competing (as we all are, at least in the Anglosphere) against people who sleep 30 minutes a day, can you afford to worry about coming down with Alzheimer's or schizophrenia 20 years down the track? Then again, perhaps sleep will become an artefact of conspicuous consumption, with the crassly wealthy bragging about how much they can afford to sleep, in the way that today's celebrity aristocracy show off their Hummers and diamond-studded BlackBerries?

There are 4 comments on "The war on sleep":

Posted by: substitute Wed Nov 22 22:20:44 2006

I take modafinil in an attempt to reduce a sleep disorder. It's fairly effective but the side effects caused me to reduce my dose. In particular I got a "sighing" breathing pattern which was annoying. The drug is already being abused by geeks and others who like staying up. One problem is that one doesn't get sleepy, but all the sleep deprivation problems occur: exhaustion, irritability, loss of concentration and cognitive acumen, etc. If it becomes widely used and abused I predict some unpleasant social effects.

Posted by: Bowie Wed Nov 22 22:23:59 2006

I've always thought the largest effect of everyone no-longer sleeping would be economic. Suddenly we'll be using a third more power (for lighting), we'll be driving around more, the shops will all have to be open 24/7... We'll probably eat more too.

Posted by: acb Wed Nov 22 23:45:32 2006

And the GDP would go up by 133%.

As for unpleasant social effects, if everyone becomes more aggressive, it could lead to a sharper, sharkier, more highly competitive society; those who opt out of sleep-elimination drugs would be left behind as much as the hunter-gatherers who opted out of agriculture were. Or perhaps there'd be a drug for those alienated by all the sharkiness and agression; perhaps the literature would market it as "a hug in a pill"?

Posted by: charleston Thu Nov 23 08:34:04 2006

What if sleep is what we live for? what if our waking hours are just there to feed our dreams?