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Doctors On Drugs?

Jonathan Leake's recent piece in The Sunday Times on brain-enhancing drugs: is this a brave new world?

Written by . Published on October 18th 2011.

Doctors On Drugs?

IN a Sunday Times article, Jonathan Leake explains how a study, led by Lord Darzi, a professor of surgery at Imperial College London, indicates that pressurized and fatigued surgeons will perform better having taken the drug Modafinil. Modafinil, which sounds remarkably similar to ‘modify’, is a brain stimulant used to boost concentration, memory, and the ability to think coherently. Or, as Leake jokes, it is effectively a substitute for caffeine.

Leake fittingly rounds off the article with a comment about cutting working hours, rather than modifying your brain so that it can cope with the unnatural demands of today’s world. The comment is, of course, transparently ironic.

Is the concept of brain enhancement a sinister reminder of the overwhelmingly stressful nature of a twenty-first century existence? The recent Bradley Cooper film, Limitless, dramatizes the human tendency towards self-destruction. Cooper plays an unemployed writer who comes across a drug that enables him to use his brain to full capacity, secure a job and win back his girlfriend. Within months of taking the pill daily to ensure maximum effect, he becomes a murderous addict and waves goodbye to any sense of selfhood. The film bares a chilling resemblance to the arrival of Modafinil. It seems likely that anything that is introduced to ease the reality of a situation will ultimately trigger negative consequences. 


Perhaps we’ve all been reading too much Margaret Atwood. Oryx and Crake and its sequel The Year the Flood are truly outstanding and provide a critical outlook on the self-destructive nature of humanity and the consequential threat of apocalypse. Atwood provides the message that messing around with what is natural can only be a bad thing. There are uncanny links with the books and the state of the human race today. One of those links is the fictional BlyssPluss pill, a drug designed to guarantee the feeling of sheer satisfaction and subsequently the right attitude to life. In other words, it is a type of brain stimulant much like the one that surgeons could be using. Once it becomes circulated worldwide, corrupt scientists reconfigure the BlyssPluss pill so that it unleashes a deadly and highly contagious virus, a ‘worldwide plague’, that wipes out humanity save for a genetically modified group of people designed to repopulate the Earth. It’s hard to say whether it’s Atwood’s creative genius or the fact that she never fails to link her imagination back to reality that makes this seem like a possibility.

Either way, we have a right to be concerned about the introduction of a drug designed to make us a better version of our current selves. It is certainly likely that fear it will feed the ever increasing vanity we have as a race that already demands far too much of us. Think of botox; it has unknown long-term risks and yet the whole carpe diem thing a lot of us have got going on can’t resist ignoring what the future holds and give it a go anyway.

So what next? When do school children and students start taking Modafinil in order to concentrate better in class and exams? Sleep deprivation is a major concern in modern day society, not just for surgeons, drivers and pilots; it affects near enough everyone at some stage in their lives. Whereas tea and coffee serve as temporary and short-lived energy boosts, brain-enhancing drugs, that have had no long-term safety tests, are in a league of their own. 

Leake fittingly rounds off the article with a comment about cutting working hours, rather than modifying your brain so that it can cope with the unnatural demands of today’s world. The comment is, of course, transparently ironic. It would be near enough unheard of, if not frowned upon, for surgeons and doctors to just cut their working hours. Maybe it would be right to raise the status and the standard of surgeons by giving them access to performance enhancing drugs. But then, it wouldn’t be long before we started letting athletes take steroids. Also, Leake points out that Modafinil is available to anyone via online pharmacies at 50p a pop. How many of you are tempted? So there you have it, yet another substance for us to become heavily addicted to and dependent on. We are actually arriving at the stage where there is a potential substitute for sleep. Sleep, the most natural remedy and crucial thing that a person can do to reward their mind and body and to allow it to function and survive.


Call it nostalgia, but the human race has seen more ethical times. Sure, we were attempting to cure each other with leeches and herbs, but at least we were all real. At this rate, before we know it, it won’t be people crowded around the operating table, it will be robots. I guess this is the price we have to pay for advanced medical capabilities and the ‘miracles’ of modern science. The fact that the drug is targeted at doctors and surgeons suggests the undercurrents of the ever-present dream of immortality. More people are saved from a natural death due the unnaturally enhanced brain of a surgeon and voila, the dystopian nightmare of overpopulation and a distinct lack of resources looms ever closer.

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Sdok OkOctober 29th 2018.

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