An experimental drug may help the brain cope with sleep deprivation.

The drug is currently called CX717 and was recently tested on monkeys. The results appear in Public Library of Science Biology.

Sleep deprivation can take its toll on the body and mind, dulling thinking and reaction times. That can be dangerous while driving or working and harsh on quality of life.

Nature's solution is simple: Sleep, preferably on a regular, restful basis. But for some shift workers, health care professionals, and military personnel, that's not always possible.

Caffeine and stay-awake drugs such as amphetamines can be addictive and may be too stimulating, write the researchers. They included Sam Deadwyler, PhD, a senior researcher at the physiology and pharmacology department of Wake Forest University Health Sciences.

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Better Than Ever

First, the researchers gave well-rested monkeys a computer test. The monkeys learned to move a cursor to a clip-art image, finding the right image among imposters. Their reward: fruit juice.

Next, the monkeys got a dose of CX717. Their performance on the computer test improved.

Then, the monkeys were kept awake for 30-36 hours. That's the equivalent of about three days for a human, according to a Wake Forest news release.

The sleepy monkeys did much worse on the computer tests than they had before. When they received CX717, they performed better than ever.

"CX717 administered to sleep-deprived monkeys produced a striking removal of the behavioral impairment and returned performance to above-normal levels even though animals remained sleep-deprived," write the researchers.

During each phase of the study researchers also evaluated brain metabolism in areas of the monkey's brain responsible for learning and memory.

When sleep deprived, metabolism in these brain areas fell. However, CX717 returned metabolism to normal in all but one of the brain areas tested.

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About the Drug

CX717 is a type of drug called an ampakine. It doesn't rev up the entire brain. Instead, it targets specific brain areas, write the researchers.

Deadwyler's study was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and National Institutes of Health. One of the researchers works at Cortex Pharmaceuticals, which makes CX717.

In May a preliminary study showed that CX717 increased wakefulness and improved performance more than placebo in men after 27 hours of sleep performance, according to a Cortex Pharmaceuticals news release.

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SOURCES: Porrino, L. Public Library of Science Biology, Sept. 2005; vol 3. WebMD Feature: "Chronic Sleep Deprivation May Harm Health." News release, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. News release, Cortex Pharmaceuticals.