New Use for Drug Might Help Shiftworkers Stay Focused

Researchers are beginning a clinical trial on a potential treatment for Shift Work Sleep Disorder, which could be good news for the more than 10 million U.S. workers who reportedly suffer from it.

Researchers at Stanford University Medical Center are beginning a clinical trial on a potential treatment for Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD), a problem caused by the irregular or nocturnal hours kept by shift workers.

Patients suffering from SWSD may experience excessive on-the-job sleepiness, making it difficult to focus. In addition, these people often have difficulties sleeping during off hours, which can compound the problem.

If the tests prove positive, relief could be at hand for a large portion of the American work force. An estimated 70 percent of the 15 million workers classified as shift workers by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are believed to suffer from chronic SWSD, said Black.

Night shift workers and women with small children at home are among those most prone to sleep loss. Sufferers of SWSD are also at greater risk for long-term health problems, such as high blood pressure, weight gain and gastrointestinal trouble, say researchers. Often these health problems, combined with the individual's overall exhaustion, can lead to a lack of productivity and an increased number of sick days.

"The problem is that shift workers are often fighting their own internal clocks," said Jed Black, director of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and principal researcher for the trial, which is funded by Cephalon Inc.

During the day, the region of the brain that controls the body's circadian clock, which in part controls sleep cycles, sends out potent alerting signals. At night, this same region of the brain sends out signals for the body to sleep. Shift workers may find it difficult to trick their bodies into ignoring these signals, and the results can be frustrating and potentially dangerous. Often, shift workers are running at a continuous sleep deficit, further plagued by difficulties sleeping when they are off work.

Black and others are testing the non-stimulant drug Modafinil to see if it might enable patients to remain alert while at work, without feeling over-stimulated or unable to sleep during off-hours. Modafinil is currently approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for excessive sleepiness associated with narcolepsy and is marketed by Cephalon under the trade name Provigil. Black said researchers are hopeful the drug may prove useful in treating SWSD as well.

The research at Stanford is part of a nationwide clinical trial currently accepting volunteers. The 12-week double-blind trial will involve monitoring workers' response to the drug both as they continue their regular work schedule and through several sessions in the sleep laboratory. For information about volunteering, contact 877-NITE-JOB.

Other centers participating in the study include Brown Medical School, Harvard Medical School, Emory University Sleep Disorders Center, Rush Presbyterian - St. Luke's Medical Center, Clinical Research Center of Nevada, Clinilabs Sleep Disorders Institute - St. Luke's Hospital, Pacific Sleep Medicine Services, Sleep Disorders and Research Center - Henry Ford Hospital, Sleep Disorders Center of Alabama, Sleep Disorders Center, Sleepmed Inc., and St. Petersburg Sleep Disorder Center.

edited by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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