Smart Drug Modafinil Doesn’t Work If You’re Already Smart

By John Lavitt 12/04/14
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Modafinil is a drug that is often taken by pilots, emergency room workers, and paramedics to stay awake and alert when working long hours. Known in non-generic form as Provigil in the United States and Alertec in Canada, an urban legend has been bouncing around that the drug also boosts intelligence. Imagine a milder form of the drug taken by Bradley Cooper in the movie Limitless.

But a new study conducted at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus shows that people who attempt to boost their cognitive abilities with modafinil are probably doing more harm than good. The research conducted by Dr. Ahmed Dahir Mohamed indicates that it’s a mistake to use modafinil to make oneself cognitively sharper and quicker. 

Beyond not increasing intelligence, the drug actually impairs the performance of students who use it before taking an exam. Dr. Mohamed explained the study results in a press release: "We looked at how the drug acted when you are required to respond accurately and in a timely manner," Mohamed said. "Our findings were completely opposite to the results we expected.”

A Schedule IV controlled substance in the United States, modafinil is an FDA approved eugeroic for the treatment of narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder, and excessive daytime sleepiness associated with obstructive sleep apnea. On account of a risk for development of skin or hypersensitivity reactions and neuropsychiatric disorders, the European Medicines Agency recommended that new patient prescriptions should only be made by doctors to treat extreme conditions, like narcolepsy.

In a double-blind study, Mohamed administered modafinil to 32 test subjects while another 32 were given a placebo. Each participant was tasked with completing the Hayling Sentence Completion Test quickly and accurately. The well-known intelligence test asks subjects to complete sentences with the last word missing. Those who were given the drug posted slower reaction times and did not perform better on the task, contradicting previous smart drug claims.

When it came to out-of-the-box answers, the drug actually reduced the scores of the more intelligent subjects. Although the drug somewhat helps those who are not quite as bright, Mohamed explained, "It looks like modafinil is not helpful for healthy individuals and it might even impair their ability to respond and might stifle their lateral thinking, while people who have some sort of deficiency in creativity are helped by the drug."

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.