Drug May Be a Help to the Sleep Deprived

A new drug appears to reverse the fuzzy thinking caused by a lack of sleep. Studies in monkeys and people show that the drug restores the ability to perform complex mental tasks. The research is being supported by the military, which hopes drugs can help military personnel think clearly even when they aren't getting enough sleep.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This story is being closely followed by the staff of MORNING EDITION. It's about the effects of a sleepless night and a possible remedy. Coffee can help you stay awake, but without enough sleep, you probably won't think as clearly as usual or remember things well. Now scientists believe they've found a drug that can restore clarity to sleepy brains, as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.

JON HAMILTON reporting:

The monkeys in Sam Deadwyler's lab are usually pretty good at computer games. They play for fruit juice. To win, they need to remember certain images and move a cursor to the right place at the right time. But Deadwyler, who is a neuroscientist at Wake Forest University, says the monkeys get pretty sloppy when they don't get enough sleep.

Mr. SAM DEADWYLER (Wake Forest University): In terms of being able to do this task and focus in and being able to get trial after trial correct, which is really the way they make their living, so to speak, they are impaired.

HAMILTON: Just like the rest of us after a sleepless night or two. Deadwyler noticed that sleep-deprived monkeys acted a lot like monkeys on sedatives, so he began experimenting with chemical compounds called ampakines, which appear to counteract some of the effects of sedatives. At first, Deadwyler says, the benefit was modest. Then he gave the monkeys an ampakine called CX717.

Mr. DEADWYLER: We were very surprised to see that the performance actually returned to normal levels.

HAMILTON: In some cases, even better. That result inspired a British team to perform a similar test on 16 men who hadn't slept for 27 hours. The effect was the same. Deadwyler says brain scans of the monkeys hint at how CX717 works. As the monkeys become sleep-deprived, they show less and less activity in a part of the brain associated with higher mental functions like cognition. Deadwyler says a dose of CX717 reversed that.

Mr. DEADWYLER: And the reversal of that effect was to place the brain back into a state that was more like it was when the animals were performing the tasks normally in their non-sleep-deprived conditions.

HAMILTON: Researchers say a drug that allows clear thinking despite a lack of sleep could help people who work long or odd hours, so it's no surprise that the research on CX717 has support from a drug company, the NIH and the military. Dr. Amy Kruse is in charge of research on sleep deprivation at the government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. She says a drug like CX717 could help military personnel in critical situations.

Dr. AMY KRUSE (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency): Trying to navigate and remember, you know, `Which way did I go? Which way should I go? What was the last order that came through?' or even trying to remember on your own person, you know, `How much ammo do I have left? Where was I supposed to be at a certain time, or where was that rendezvous point?'

HAMILTON: Other likely customers might include academics or businesspeople. Anjan Chatterjee is a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. ANJAN CHATTERJEE (University of Pennsylvania): They get off their planes, you know, in Europe or in Asia and want to be performing at their best as soon as they get off. I think there will be a demand for these kinds of medications.

HAMILTON: CX717 doesn't prevent people from feeling tired, though, and Chatterjee says it may not prevent some other effects of sleeplessness.

Dr. CHATTERJEE: People can have poor impulse control. People that are sleep-deprived can get more irritable, sometimes get quite anxious and even depressed.

HAMILTON: Chatterjee says he's not worried about people occasionally taking a drug like CX717, but he says people shouldn't see it as a regular substitute for a good night's sleep. The new research appears in the online journal Public Library of Science Biology. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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