Modafinil’s soaring popularity is due to its “off-label” use to improve cognition, where qualities such as alertness and concentration are useful for things like exam preparation. Past studies on sleep-deprived individuals demonstrated a strong positive effect on these functions, but there has been less attention and scientific consensus on the drug’s overall effectiveness as a cognitive enhancer in people that are not sleep-deprived.
Now, a new systematic review, published online in the peer-reviewed journal European Neuropsychopharmacology shows that modafinil does indeed confer significant cognitive benefits.
Doctors Ruairidh Battleday and Anna-Katharine Brem from the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School evaluated all available research papers on cognitive enhancement with modafinil from January 1990 to December 2014. 24 of these dealt with cognitive benefits associated with taking modafinil, including planning, flexibility, learning, memory, decision making, and creativity.
The results were dependent on the task. It showed that the longer the task and the more complex it was, the more consistently modafinil conferred cognitive benefits. Decision-making and planning improved the most. Better yet, 70% of the studies showed minimal negative effects.
According to Dr. Battleday, this is the first overview of modafinil’s actions in non-sleep-deprived individuals since 2008, and in those 7 years heaps of new data became available. But it’s not just new data. The testing used to be very basic, developed for neurologically-impaired individuals. In contrast, recent studies have begun to use more complex tests and when they are used it appears modafinil more reliably enhances cognition. Good news for those hard exams
Two main conclusions stand out: First, in the face of few side effects in these controlled environments, modafinil can be considered a safe cognitive enhancer; Second, we need to continue testing normal or even supra-normal cognition in a reliable manner.
Professor Guy Goodwin, President of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, added that “modafinil may well deserve the title of the first well-validated pharmaceutical nootropic agent.” In other words, it’s the first real example of a ‘smart drug’, which can genuinely help people in their regular lives.
It seems to be so efficient at what it does that some researchers have questioned if it is really fair for someone to have that advantage when taking an exam. Others have made the point that whether we like it or not this is going to eventually make its way into the workplace due to its efficiency and safety, it is all really just a matter of time. And as we’ve discussed here before, modafinil can’t really be considered cheating.
So break open your blister packs, it’s time to celebrate the good news: Modafinil is officially the first real, proven smart drug.