Though initially made for narcoleptics (people having trouble sleeping), many soon caught on that modafinil can enhance cognitive abilities. Right now, it’s a favorite among students who use it when preparing for exams with visible results, they claim. But modafinil isn’t the first such “smart drug” we’ve come across. It’s likely that you’ve seen some TV or internet ads marketing ‘smart pills’ that supposedly enhance cognitive abilities, but with mere anecdotal evidence backing it up. In contrast, modafinil really seems to be a legit smart drug, according to a systematic review of reports documenting the effects of the drug. The meta-analysis was made by a team at University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School.
Make me smarter The researchers looked at the studies documenting the cognitive enhancing effects of modafinil published between January 1990 and December 2014. In total, 24 such studies were identified which discussed modafinil cognitive benefits in areas like planning and decision making, flexibility, learning and memory, and creativity. Performance gains varied from task to task, but the longer, more complex the task was, the better the improvements. The most significant improvement was registered in decision-making and planning tasks, while the least significant dealt with working memory, or flexibility of thought. Most importantly, 70% of the studies reported little to no side effects. Some, however, found that participants showed insomnia, headache, stomach ache or nausea.
The researchers point out, however, that these reported side effects were observed in the placebo group as well. “This is the first overview of modafinil’s actions in non-sleep-deprived individuals since 2008, and so we were able to include a lot of recent data. Interestingly, we found that the type of test used to assess modafinil’s cognitive benefits has changed over the last few decades. In the past, people were using very basic tests of cognition, developed for neurologically-impaired individuals. In contrast, more recent studies have, in general, used more complex tests: when these are used, it appears that modafinil more reliably enhances cognition: in particular ‘higher’ brain functions that rely on contribution from multiple simple cognitive processes,” said Dr. Ruairidh McLennan Battleday, a University of Oxford researcher. The researchers seem confident to label modafinil as the world’s first ever confirmed cognitive enhancing drug. The findings raise some important questions.
For one, the studies mainly concern the short-term effects of modafinil. The word isn’t out yet on what might happen to a person were him to take the drug every day for years. Secondly, there’s an ethical consideration. Is it okay to take a cognitive enhancing drug in the absence of a cognitive disability? Some might see it like cheating. On a competitive level, modafinil could definitely be seen as cheating. The president of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology welcomed the findings, but was also careful to point out the ethical discussion. “Modafinil is the first real example of a smart drug which can genuinely help, for example, with exam preparation,” said Guy Goodwin.
“Previous ethical discussion of such agents has tended to assume extravagant effects before it was clear that there were any. If correct, the present update means the ethical debate is real: how should we classify, condone or condemn a drug that improves human performance in the absence of pre-existing cognitive impairment?” In the UK, modafinil is already quite popular among university students who couldn’t wait for an ‘official’ word. A survey by Oxford University student newspaper The Tab found one in four students took modafinil. A fifth of students at Imperial, Sheffield, Nottingham and Manchester also admitted using the drug. Just like some body builders and athletes use supplements to enhance their physical performance, some might decide to take cognitive enhancers for their brain. The brain – more specifically, intelligence and creativity – isn’t exactly like a biceps.
You can’t pop pills and expect turning into Einstein or Bradley Cooper from Limitless, which is full of fallacies by the way. Forget Limitless. The point I’m trying to make is you should see cognitive enhancers with a weary eye. Whether you want to overclock your brain or not is up to you, but really if you feel you’re not smart enough, try the traditional approach first. Flex that brain. Study, read, talk to people, write. And don’t forget to exercise.