Surgeons given so-called "smart drugs" perform better, safer operations, a study by researchers at the Imperial College London and University of Cambridge has claimed.
Researchers gave sleep-deprived surgeons the brain stimulant modafinil, known to boost memory and brain power, and then tested how good they were at thinking clearly, solving problems and carrying out simulated operations.
The results were so convincing that scientists believe the medical profession could even be weaned off its current drug of choice -- caffeine.
The study's results, led by Lord Darzi, professor of surgery at Imperial College London, suggested that doctors whose brains were sharpened by the drug would perform better under pressure.
What is more, their extra brain power means they would think faster and react more decisively if something went wrong, Darzi said.
"We found that when surgeons had taken modafinil they saw sharp improvements in their ability to solve problems and think flexibly. In fact, their performance was very good," Barbara Sahakian, professor of psychiatry at Cambridge University, said.
The sight of bleary-eyed doctors scrubbing up for surgery after sleepless nights in the hospital has caused widespread concern over the risk to patients. But the usual remedy of strong coffee taken in large quantities can cause hand tremors.
Sahakian suggested that modafinil could be a superior substitute for caffeine. However, a key concern is that modafinil has not been subjected to long-term safety tests.
The study is published in the latest edition of the medical journal Annals of Surgery.