What Is Modafinil and How Does It Work?

Modafinil is a drug I’ve talked about in the past. It is considered a eugeroic, in other words, a wakefulness-promoting drug. Unlike stimulants, Modafinil only causes a minimal amount of stimulation and it isn’t associated with much euphoria or mood lift. The drug has become quite popular recently as a cognitive enhancer and it has been used by students, workers, and other groups of people to keep them awake and functioning.

Does it really make you smarter?

As it has been studied, researchers have come to different conclusions about the cognitive enhancing properties of modafinil. Some studies suggested it had significant beneficial effects, others said there were very minimal effects, and some said the beneficial effects were only seen in people with below average cognitive functioning. Now, we finally have a superior study to base our beliefs about modafinil on. Researchers with Harvard University and Oxford University published a review of 24 studies completed between 1990 and 2014. The review concluded modafinil did have cognitive enhancing properties in normal, healthy people. There are multiple forms of attention that were studied. The first is selective attention, an example of which would be paying attention to a professor’s voice while in a loud classroom. In that area, modafinil may have minor positive effects, but most studies show it has little to no effect. Second is sustained attention, an example of which would be remaining attentive while reading a book. While multiple studies have found no effect, those that did found modafinil improved sustained attention. Lastly, some studies have found modafinil use results in a general improvement in alertness, but the effect has not been replicated in all studies.

Does Modafinil Work For Everyone?

It appears if modafinil does have an effect on attention, it is a positive one, but the benefits may be minimal and only apply to some people. Executive functions are a group of cognitive functions which handle and manipulate incoming information. The research review examined modafinil’s effects on four areas of executive function: inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, working memory, and higher functions like planning and decision making. Inhibitory control is your ability to inhibit your normal response to a stimulus. Modafinil does have a positive effect on inhibitory control in some areas, suggesting it helps people reduce their impulsive response to normal stimuli, allowing them to remain on-task. Cognitive flexibility is your ability to focus your attention on shifting parts of a task depending on what’s required.

Does Modafinil Improve Working Memory?

In this area, modafinil didn’t have any positive effect. Working memory is your brain’s system for holding and processing new and existing information. In this area, modafinil has few to no effects. As we move to the higher executive functions, modafinil does have more significant positive effects. Studies have found the drug improves planning and decision making, regardless of how difficult the task at hand is. Fluid intelligence is your ability to solve problems when presented with novel situations, independent of preexisting knowledge. It is one of the most important forms of intelligence and modafinil has a range of positive effects on it. Modafinil can increase both accuracy and performance.

Two types of short-term memory, nonverbal and verbal, were examined. Modafinil appears to reduce latency and errors on non-verbal memory tests. In studies on verbal memory, modafinil also seemed to decrease reaction time, but the studies were mixed. Looking across all of the studies, modafinil appears to have slight positive effects on short-term memory, but some studies have found no effect. Studies have come away with varying conclusions about modafinil’s effect on creativity. In some cases, the drug has clear negative effects since it slows reaction times and increases deliberation, while in other cases it has no effect. Just as we saw with executive function, modafinil has greater positive effects as the tasks become more complex.

Does Modafinil Help With Complex Tasks?

In studies that looked at modafinil’s effect on complex tasks which involve executive function, attention, and other areas of cognition, modafinil was quite beneficial. Across the studies, modafinil helped people with memory and attention. It was also capable of helping people learn faster. An important finding from one of the studies was that modafinil had a significant positive effect on task enjoyment. This could be incredibly useful since modafinil is often used by people to help them get through relatively boring tasks in work or school. If people can enjoy what they are doing more, it stands to reason they may also perform better overall.

Does Modafinil Improve Mood?

Modafinil was found to have almost no effect on mood and it was associated with very few side effects. If anything, the drug seems to generally improve mood. The side effects recorded in the studies were limited to insomnia, headache, upset stomach, dry mouth, and nausea. Only a small portion of the participants ever experienced those effects. My personal view of this review is that it shows modafinil’s effects on cognition are generally positive and significant enough to be measured. As is the case with some ADHD drugs, it does appear as though minimal negative effects on creativity are possible, but not all studies supported the existence of those negative effects. Modafinil is also one of safest substances we can currently call a “smart drug.”

I’m also going to provide you with the responses other people had to this review. Anna-Katharine Brem, co-author of this review, said, “Modafinil seems to be the first smart drug that is reasonably safe for healthy people.” Brem also said, “In the face of vanishingly few side effects in these controlled environments, modafinil can be considered a cognitive enhancer.” Guy Goodwin, president of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology said, “Modafinil is the first real example of a smart drug which can genuinely help, for example, with exam preparation.”

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