Denis Félix

Doctoral student in sociology and history, EHESS

Doctoral training field « health, populations and social policies»

Doctoral contract with CNRS from November 2017 to October 2020

Contact : felix.denis.bc(at) 


Tentative dissertation title: “The pharmacologisation of cognitive performance: the sociology of the student at work”

Thesis directors: Jean-Paul Gaudillière (Cermes3) and Sébastien Dalgalarrondo (Iris)

The idea of improving one’s cognitive performance relates back to the recent category of nootropics, which comprises a heterogeneous group of substances taken for the effects they are supposed to have on brain functioning (memory, mental endurance, stress, concentration, etc.). Some of these products are described as biomedical innovations. As such, we can cite certain prescribed psycho-stimulant drugs diverted from their intended use: in the case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) (methylphendate); for their effects on sleep (modafinil) or for combating cognitive deficit (piracetam); or even food supplements (Paneuromix or Brain Plus IQ) composed of several different products.

My research comprises three investigations. In a first phase, I examine the meaning people give to the products they consume, using semi-structured interviews with that population, notably the promoters of nootropics on Internet (production of YouTube videos; articles in blogs; Internet sites, etc.). I propose a comprehensive sociology of daily life – starting with the uses made of these substances and the categories employed by the actors – by examining the meanings they give to and the representations they have of the products they use.

In another phase, I analyse the market for food supplements in France. I am interested in the way the DGCCRF (General Direction of Competition, Consumption and the Control of Fraud) verifies that current regulations are followed. I also study the work of “nutrivigilance” carried out by the National Agency of Safety in Health and Food, the Environment and Work (Anses). This includes the evaluation of the severity of undesirable effects, and imputability (the probability of a link between the consumption of a product and the occurrence of undesirable effects). I carry out interviews with people working in these different administrative offices as well.

In a final phase, I describe the biography of modfinil (Modiodal in France, Provigil in the United States or Alertec in Canada) which is the medicine most often cited by popular media or in virtual Internet communities for referring to the category. It was discovered in the 1970s by Lafon laboratories in France and was tested on French soldiers before being marketed in 1992. I carry out this biography through archival work to trace its scientific and commercial history in order to understand its contribution in shaping the class of nootropics. The archives are those of the Lyonnais laboratory of Dr. Michel Jouvet in which modafinil was tested on cats, then on man. I also carry out interviews with physicians having contributed to the commercialisation of this drug (setting up animal experiments and clinical trials, supervision of trials carried out in the army, etc.).

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