Mercedes Ruehl Reporter

Mercedes writes for The Australian Financial Review and BRW from the Sydney newsroom. She has an interest in technology, politics and travel writing.

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It’s ‘brain Viagra’ to some but the efficacy and long-term effects of Provigil, or modafinil, are still not certain

Published 01 May 2013 11:44, Updated 02 May 2013 07:11

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It’s ‘brain Viagra’ to some but the efficacy and long-term effects of Provigil, or modafinil, are still not certain

Credited by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Asprey with lifting his IQ by 20 points, the efficacy of ‘brain Viagra’ drug Provigil is, in fact, unknown. Photo: Louie Douvis

It’s dubbed the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’ drug of choice and ‘brain Viagra’ by Wall Street traders but whether the smart pill Provigil actually works is still up for debate.

More than 500,000 Americans are using the smart drug regularly, according to a study done by the University of California in March.

Provigil, which has been around for 15 years, is only approved in the United States to help people with sleep apnoea, narcolepsy, or who work irregular hours. But most who are using it are doing it to boost their performance, and they are obtaining it from Canadian online pharmacies.

On its official site, the drug is described as “prescription medicine used to improve wakefulness in adults”. Its generic name is modafinil, and can be bought in Australia online and at some physical chemists with a prescription.

David Vandenberg, director and founder of co-working spaces Fishburners and Engineroom, says while he hasn’t heard of Aussie entrepreneurs using Provigil in recent years, he is aware of the drug.

“I did hear of it several years ago from an entrepreneur programmer here in Australia who swore by it,” Vandenberg says.

“I think it would appeal more to coders and engineers who need to be deep in thought for long periods of time rather than your typical entrepreneur.”

The long-term effects of Provigil, which has been prescribed in the US since 1998, are unknown. Users say there are few or no side effects, especially compared with other stimulants.

David Asprey, a Silicon Valley investor, entrepreneur and the vice-president of Cloud Security at billion-dollar internet security firm Trend Micro, credits Provigil with helping him to boost his IQ by 20 points. He has been taking the pill daily for more than eight years.

“I would like to really live during those years where I’m alive,” Asprey has said publicly, comparing being on the pill to the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the setting changes into colour. “Provigil helps me do that.”

Without it, he says, he feels “off.”

Researchers say use is also high among law and medical students in Australia because it increases the amount of hours people can stay awake and alert. However it is not regarded as having the amphetamine-like qualities of other stimulants.

But Australian Medical Association President Steve Hambleton says its reputation as a cognitive enhancement drug is more “folklore than evidence”.

Provigil is also seen as partly inspiring the 2011 blockbuster Limitless. Its main character uses the drug to become a successful businessman.