A pill that makes you smarter without causing harmful side-effects? Modafinil might be this “smart-drug”. The substance is generally prescribed to narcolepsy patients. Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder involving the loss of the brain's ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles normally. Modafinil is designed to keep narcoleptic people awake but, when taken by a healthy person, it might boost alertness even further.
For some University students modafinil is already the drug-of-choice during exam periods. They claim it makes them learn faster, keep focus and think more clearly. Also it is said to have less negative side effects than ritalin and adderall, two other substances commonly used as “study-doping”.
A recent analysis, that reviewed 24 studies, suggests there is scientific evidence for these claims. Modafinil has positive short-term effects on cognitive abilities. These involve abilities that ask for cognitive flexibility like memory, learning, attention, problem solving and even creativity. The improvements seem to increase with task difficulty.
It reminds of 2011’s movie Limitless, in which the protagonist overcomes his writer’s block by taking a pill that gives him access to 100 percent of his brain abilities. In Limitless the use of the “smart drug” isn’t without consequences. The long-term effects of modafinil stay unclear, because the access to long term-effect studies is still limited.
Whatever the outcome, it gives food for thought. If modafinil turned out to be without any long-term dangers, would it be allowed like other low-harm stimulants as coffee? Or would the use be seen as cheating, like the use of doping in sports?