Support our mission

ARLINGTON, Va. — It sounds like the Holy Grail for sleep-deprived servicemembers from Fort Bragg to Fallujah: a nasal spray that banishes sleepiness without any side effects.

Tuck the little white bottle into your cargo pants and go.

Then, the next time you’re 18 hours into Double Watch Duty from Hell, with your eyes at half-mast, your chew long gone and no coffee in sight, take a few brisk snorts and suddenly it’s like you just got eight hours of decent rack.

No caffeine jitters. No amphetamine hangover. Just a clear mind and a steady finger on the trigger.

There’s only one place in the U.S. military something this good could come from: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Yes, DARPA — the place where the Pentagon rolls its research and development dice and millions of taxpayer dollars on “wouldn’t it be cool if …?” projects — has actually funded research into this nasal spray.

The bad news is that “it’s not going to be next to the Red Bull” at your local AAFES outlet anytime soon, according to Amy Kruse, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office.

As far as the researchers know, orexin A doesn’t reduce physical fatigue.

Physical tiredness is an entirely different set of issues, said Lt. Col. Brian Maka, an Army Ranger, Iraq war veteran and former company commander in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division who serves as a Pentagon spokesman.

“I can see a lot of pluses and minuses to this,” Maka mused.

Simply put, muscle and body tissue need downtime. And many military operations tend to be very physical, especially for lower-ranking troops, he said.

“So if your basic military job is physical — if it’s sending bullets downrange, say — what would happen if you gave this orexin A stuff to a guy like that who made a decision about something, and then couldn’t physically follow through?” Maka asked.

“What if he told his buddy, ‘Yeah, don’t worry, man, I got you covered,’” Maka said, raising a pretend rifle — then collapsed. “Bam. His buddy is dead.”

Orexin A might be good for commanders, who need their minds clear and sharp to make good decisions, Maka said.

“But give this to everybody, and my guess is people are going to get injured, from the drivers to the shooters.”

If and when DARPA does pick up orexin A again, “there are a lot of things about this hormone we don’t understand that still need to be studied, especially because it hasn’t been tested yet on humans,” Kruse said.

DARPA got interested in the spray as part of a five-year study into sleep deprivation prevention, which just wrapped up in December, Kruse told Stars and Stripes in a Tuesday telephone call.

The spray is based on orexin A, a hormone discovered by scientists at UCLA who were doing research into the sleep disorder narcolepsy.

Using DARPA money, researchers decided to see whether giving orexin A to sleep-deprived monkeys would make them more alert.

Sure enough, just three to five minutes after receiving orexin A, the sleep-deprived subjects were functioning as well as a control group of well-rested monkeys.

Unfortunately, Kruse said, DARPA’s sleep-deprivation program money is now gone, and the agency is chartered only to conduct basic research, anyway, not develop marketable products.

For DARPA to take the next step — seeking FDA permission for clinical trials — DARPA would need a corporate partner, she said.

While DARPA looks for a venture capitalist eager to tackle America’s sleep-deprivation problem military members are back to their old standbys: Red Bull, caffeine and will power.


Stripes in 7



around the web


Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up