Cephalon, a Pennsylvania biopharmaceutical company, is testing an anti-narcolepsy drug to see if it can keep night-shift workers awake. The drug, Provigil, has been used since 1999 to keep narcoleptics alert during the day. More recently, Cephalon's researchers found that Provigil allows test subjects to stay awake longer and appear more alert during nighttime work hours. "Our intent was to test the theory that Provigil could potentially treat all sleepiness effectively, regardless of the underlying cause," says Sheryl Williams, a spokesperson for Cephalon. The company has submitted these and other results to the Food and Drug Administration, aiming to extend the drug's labeled usage. Some medical researchers question the propriety of treating sleepiness as a disease.
Cephalon says Provigil should be used only for diagnosed sleep disorders. Carl Hunt, director of the National Institutes of Health's National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, says that so-called shift-work sleep disorder is a social, not a medical, problem:
"Narcoleptics have genetically abnormal, poor quality sleep. The shift-work label simply describes people who have imposed unnatural sleep schedules; it's not a physiological disorder. Everyone in this 24/7 society is looking for a magic bullet to allow them to get by without a good night's sleep. Unfortunately, we aren't real optimistic that this is doable."