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So you are saying that modafinil has benefits beyond treating narcolepsy? Yes. Despite being around for decades, modafinil’s off-label use as a “smart-drug” is only now reaching critical mass. Modafinil is quickly becoming the go-to nootropic for many software engineers in Silicon Valley, finance executives on Wall Street, and high performing students at top universities. Given its recent popularity, we expect to see many future studies which investigate modafinil benefits.
The rise of modafinil is not surprising. Perhaps, if the effects of coffee were longer lasting, and if Adderall had fewer side effects, there would be no need for another “smart drug”. So what does the current scientific literature say about modafinil benefits? According to Battleday & Brem’s (2015) recent comprehensive review paper – “modafinil may well deserve the title of the first well-validated pharmaceutical “nootropic” agent”. High praise from researchers at the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School. But, why?
Detecting Modafinil Benefits is NOT EASY
Human cognition arises from the interaction of multiple brain systems. Needless to say, cognition is a complex process. Hence, developing methods to systematically detect modafinil-induced changes in these complex processes is a challenging task. Battleday & Brem (2015) note that older studies report variable outcomes following modafinil intake, whereas more recent studies using complex testing paradigms have tended to report modafinil benefits. This is very interesting. Consider the following analogy. To analyze the weather requires complex instruments and measurements. You cannot just check which way the wind is blowing. Similarly, to analyze the effects of modafinil requires complex testing paradigms. Keeping this in mind, what did Battleday and Brem find?
“modafinil may well deserve the title of the first well-validated pharmaceutical ‘nootropic’ agent” – Battleday and Brem (2015)
Modafinil Benefits: The Results
They found that the literature does not clearly support the idea that modafinil leads to an increase in attention. Simple psychometric tests have often failed to detect an increase in people’s ability to detect specific objects in an environment with distractors (selective attention). Similar tests have also failed to detect people’s ability to maintain focus for prolonged repetitive activity (sustained attention).
Modafinil’s effects on learning and memory were also not conclusive. While there is a sizeable literature which has shown a positive effect on learning and memory in simple tasks, there is also a sizeable literature which has failed to show any effects. Hence, no strong conclusions could be drawn.
However, Battleday and Brem did find that modafinil use shows an overall positive effect on executive function. The effects are best observed in more complex functions such as planning, decision making and fluid intelligence. Lesser effects are also seen in in the domains of inhibitory control and working memory. Additionally, among all the reviewed studies, only a small minority reported experience of side-effects, and the one study which assessed modafinil’s abuse potential reported it as low.
Learning and Memory
So what does all of this mean? Taken together, it appears that modafinil benefits cognition via an increase in executive function performance, and that too with relatively few side-effects and low potential for abuse. Nevertheless, modafinil is not the “limitless” drug, given the lack of robust positive effects on learning, memory, and attention. But, until we get our hands on NZT 48, Battleday and Brem have a legitimate reason to be excited about modafinil benefits. It certainly appears to be promising and worth further investigation.