Super Soldiers? Military Drug is Rage Among Students, Young Professionals

Modafinil use creates a debate on how far to push the limits of the human body.

ByABC News
December 7, 2008, 3:37 PM

July 24, 2007 — -- In 2003, David Plotz, a busy writer and father of a toddler, was feeling sleep-deprived and run-down. Unable to catch up on rest, he searched for a solution other than sleep that might improve his performance on both the home and career fronts.

He began taking modafinil, a drug developed in France and approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1998 to treat narcolepsy or daytime sleepiness. Modafinil is a memory-improving and mood-brightening psycho stimulant that enhances wakefulness -- not unlike cocaine or amphetamines.

Sleep-deprived groups ranging from truck drivers to the military have experimented with modafinil, marketed for nearly a decade by Cephalon under what Plotz calls the "creepy, pharma-Orwellian" name Provigil.

Military officials have found it so effective that some now refer to it as a "super drug." But its off-label uses have created a rich debate on how far to push the limits of the human body.

For Plotz, the results were immediate.

"I am the picture of vivacity," he wrote on

Even with only five hours sleep, he could write twice as fast and felt alert.

"I have a desperate urge to write, to make reporting calls and to finish my expense account – activities I religiously avoid," he wrote. "I find myself talking loudly and quickly. A colleague says I am grinning like a 'feral chipmunk.'"

But Plotz ended the experiment after three days, in part because it was so effective. He was worried that he would one day stash pills, scour the Internet for discounts and become addicted to a life of high energy.

Despite his concerns, Plotz never did quit using Provigil. He restocked his supply and uses it twice a year for long-distance drives or bouncing back after a period of little sleep.

"The drug is fantastic," Plotz, now acting editor at, told ABC News. "I am my best self. I just feel alert -- at the time period where you feel yourself to be at your sharpest and wittiest and your brain clicks."

A seemingly perfect stimulant, clinical trials found modafinil to be less likely than amphetamines to cause jitteriness or anxiety or have a "rebound" or "crash" effect. And because it does not produce a "high," it has never become a street drug, according to the New York University Sleep Center.

Tired and frenetic Americans are asking their doctors for more and more modafinil prescriptions, and college students have embraced the super drug for all-night study sessions.