Modafinil, a drug prescribed for the treatment of narcolepsy and other rare wakefulness disorders, racks up a good $700 million each year. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Experts estimate that about 90 percent of users are healthy, non-sleep deprived people who are in need of a so-called smart drug. However, a new study indicates modafinil, which is sold under the brand names Provigil and Alertec, is anything but smart. Given to healthy volunteers, the drug did not improve performance on a test of their cognitive abilities.

Drug Of Choice

Modafinil, a favorite on Wall Street, says New York Magazine, is not the only prescription medication commonly used as a smart drug. Surveys suggest up to a quarter of all college students have used Adderall or Ritalin, two of the most commonly prescribed treatments for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as a study drug. Both of these drugs work by helping you to focus your attention and to avoid distraction, though some people describe them as the nerd equivalent to an athlete taking steroids. Adderall is a combination of amphetamine salts, while Ritalin is a simple derivative of amphetamine (or speed, as people call it on the street). Both of these drugs, apparently, are easy enough to obtain on any large campus, though ADHD is said to affect only three to four percent of the population.

More recently, some of the new Alzheimer’s drugs are being used for their brain-improving abilities. Favorites among the smart drug crowd include Aricept, Reminyl, and Exelon, all of which are used as memory enhancers.

For the current study, 64 healthy volunteers, nearly half men with an average age of about 25, received either a single dose of modafinil or a placebo. Two hours after being given the drug or a placebo, the participants completed the Hayling Sentence Completion Test (HSCT) as well as mood scale tests at intervals. The HSCT, a highly sensitive neuropsychological measure of frontal lobe function, has been shown to be independent of fluid intelligence performance. The mood test measured participants’ along a continuum for each of these dimensions: alert–drowsy, calm–excited, strong–feeble, muzzy–clear headed, well-coordinated–clumsy, lethargic–energetic, contented–discontented, troubled–tranquil, mentally slow–quick-witted, tense–relaxed, attentive–dreamy, incompetent–proficient, happy–sad, antagonistic–amicable, interested–bored, and withdrawn–gregarious.

What did the researchers discover? Participants dosed with modafinil took longer to complete the tasks on the HSCT compared to participants given a placebo. On the other hand, participants in both groups made a similar number of errors.

Modafinil, then, did not enhance performance, though in all likelihood, the volunteers remained wide awake… similar to having had a cup of coffee? Considering the drug is pricey and may cause side effects (such as anxiety and vomitting), this small effect is hardly worth more than the price (or risks) of a cup of joe.

Source: Mohamed AD, Lewis CR. Modafinil Increases the Latency of Response in the Hayling Sentence Completion Test in Healthy Volunteers: A Randomised Controlled Trial. PLOS ONE. 2014.

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