Does Modafinil Really Make You Smarter?

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Evidence from Clinical Studies   Is modafinil (also known as Provigil) a genuine nootropic? Can it really make you smarter? This article presents several clinical studies on healthy individuals, which show that the consensus within the medical community is overwhelmingly affirmative: Modafinil is more than just a wakefulness-promoting agent—it is a legitimate smart drug with tremendous cognitive enhancement potential.   One of the most common questions that people who are interested in cognitive enhancement ask is whether modafinil should be considered a genuine nootropic or not. Most often, the questioner has read a pharmaceutical label or an online encyclopedia entry in which modafinil is described as a "wakefulness-promoting agent,” and so they wonder why it is even used for cognitive enhancement (See, for instance, RxList’s entry for Provigil [1]).   Indeed, it is true that modafinil promotes wakefulness, or mental alertness, and is most commonly prescribed to individuals with narcolepsy or shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). [2] In that sense, it is a wakefulness-promoting drug. However, modafinil is frequently touted on online forums, [3] in the news, [4] and virtually all over the Internet [5] [6] [7] as a “nootropic,” “smart drug,” “cognitive enhancer,” or “nootropic-like drug.”   So, how exactly should we view modafinil? Is it a medication for people with sleep disorders or a nootropic with cognitive benefits for healthy people like you and me? Not surprisingly, scientists have been studying the cognitive enhancing effects of modafinil in healthy, non-sleep-deprived individuals for some time. As it turns out, modafinil has repeatedly been shown to improve neuropsychological task performance in clinical studies, and therefore fits the profile of a genuine nootropic.   Let’s examine the most recent research. In a 2003 study by Cambridge University neuropsychologists, [8] 60 healthy college students were given either modafinil or a placebo before completing various tests designed to measure memory and attention (These included visual pattern recognition and logical problem solving tasks). The results? You guessed it: the modafinil group performed significantly better than the placebo group, showing up to 180% improvement in areas such as memory, concentration, visual pattern recognition, response time, and decision making.   What’s more, several other peer-reviewed studies have since confirmed these results (See, for example, [9] [10] [11] [12]). Some have even uncovered additional benefits. One study, in particular, found that modafinil reduced error rates on memory and attention tasks by a considerable measure. [13] Another study, conducted by researchers at Loma Linda University in California, found that modafinil facilitated “sustained attention, cognitive control, and working memory” in medical doctors who took the drug before work. [14]   For most people, a half-dozen or so clinical studies will not be enough to convince them of modafinil’s cognitive-enhancing potential, so consider this: In a recent review of 24 studies that assessed how modafinil affected healthy non-sleep deprived individuals, Oxford researchers Ruairidh Battleday and Anna-Katherine Brem found that Modafinil “consistently improved performance on complex tests [which measured] attention; the ability to focus on a task and process relevant information; learning and memory; and executive function.” [15] The last category, executive function, refers to the ability to process information and use it to produce plans or strategies.   Battleday and Brem’s survey of the literature is impressively comprehensive in scope, and the conclusion so well-supported as to be indisputable, that several prominent researchers have since come out with statements acknowledging Modafinil’s cognitive benefits. One researcher at Harvard Medical School and the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry, commented: “[I]n the face of vanishingly few side effects in these controlled environments, modafinil can be considered a cognitive enhancer.” Guy Goodwin, M.D., D.Phil., President Emeritus of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP), said about Brem and Battleday’s article: “This overview suggests that, on current evidence, modafinil enhances cognition independent of its known effects in sleep disordered populations. Thus, the authors say 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, for example, with exam preparation.” [16]   So, there you have it. Medical research has shown that modafinil is more than just a wakefulness-promoting agent—it is a legitimate smart drug with tremendous cognitive benefits, including improved attention, learning, memory and executive function. Now, before you go and buy modafinil online, you should consult a relevant health care provider. This article is intended only to provide facts, not medical advice. As with any supplement, do your own research before you begin taking modafinil.   References