What We Really Know About the Controversial New Drug That Makes Us Smarter

The era of the ‘smart drugs’ has well and truly begun. With the promise of cognitive enhancement, creative expansion, and heightened memory function for users, the potential of these supplements is undeniably riveting, and with growing popularity, they appear set to make profound social and economic impacts in the near future. Otherwise known as Nootropics, the family of ‘smart drugs’ encompasses a broad collection of stimulants that have been adopted to improve cognitive function from those deep-seated in working culture such as caffeine to amphetamine-based pharmaceuticals such as Adderall and dextroamphetamine.

Whilst the greater number of these drugs have well-established cultures and substantial histories of scientific investigation, a small number are little-researched and, with burgeoning global popularity, have become controversial in use for precisely that reason.

In recent years, Modafinil has become one of the most talked-about nootropics, hailed by many as a wonder drug and infiltrating university campuses and the offices of Silicon Valley alike. Modafinil is rapidly being adopted as a driving force in environments where sleep is not a priority and the resources to exceed depend upon superhuman qualities of productivity. It is the drug of choice in a global marketplace dominated by the obsessively competitive. Originally developed as an experimental treatment for narcolepsy in the 1980s, Modafinil belongs to a family of drugs known as Eugeroics, which are designed to promote wakefulness in patients with clinically-defined sleep disorders.

Modafinil’s fast-acting, non-addictive properties made it quickly valuable in the treatment of a number of disorders including hypersomnia, shift work sleep disorder, and ADHD (although due to concerns of developing a destructive dermatological disorder known as Steven-Johnson Syndrome, it has been denied for use in children).


It has also been researched, with varying degrees of success, as a pharmaceutical aid for a number of conditions including cocaine addiction, weight loss, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, motion sickness, and seasonal affective disorder. However, the culture of Modafinil is one that thrives primarily off-prescription, listed as a controlled substance in most nations and distributed through online channels that governments have failed to intercept.

So, how does Modafinil work in the brain? Researchers have only recently begun to understand the pharmacological mechanisms of Modafinil and its effects on neurotransmitters are still largely disputed today. The drug has been established as a dopamine reuptake inhibitor (DRI) but does not act in the same manner as typical dopaminergic stimulants such as cocaine and methylphenidates (i.e. Ritalin) and therefore exhibits the same benefits of drugs such as these – including increased motivation – but is not believed to have the same addictive properties. Modafinil also increases the number of histamines as well as norepinephrine (a neurotransmitter similar in its effects to adrenaline) in the hypothalamus, disrupting the sleep/wake regulation in the brain and allowing users to work with concentration for longer stints. However, the precise mechanisms of Modafinil that incite wakefulness in the brain are still largely up for debate and far from firmly established in the literature.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the benefits of Modafinil as a cognitive enhancer (and, naturally, governments have subsequently taken interest in its potential for military purposes) but as the popularity of the drug grows and it becomes increasingly accessible globally and unregulated in its individual usage, should there be cause for concern? The answer is glaringly inconclusive and ultimately, that is the problem. There is no solid longitudinal data to examine the effects that Modafinil has on a healthy brain and this is in part due to the relative novelty of the drug’s use and also as a result of its lack of regulation.

Brain medicine mental health care concept as hands holding an open pill capsule releasing gears to a human head made of machine cog wheels as a symbol for the pharmaceutical science of neurology and the treatment of psychological illness.

The effect that Modafinil has on a healthy brain over time could be as innocuous as caffeine or it could prove to have the same deleterious effects on nerve activity, working memory, and the ability to fluently switch tasks as methylphenidate, nobody is certain yet. Kimberley Urban and Wen-Jun Gao in an article in the journal, Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience warn of the damaging effects of regular stimulant use in developing brains and, as the brain does not develop its centres of attention or executive reasoning until the late 20s to early 30s, this could prove extremely problematic for the demographic of college students and young professionals that have started to rely on Modafinil. Urban and Gao also speculate that Modafinil could prove to have impairment effects on brain plasticity in the short and long-term, leading to functional problems later in life. Dr Peter Morgan from Yale University theorized in an interview with the Guardian that with increasing brain dependence on Modafinil, the cognitive enhancing effects of the drug will come to reduce its natural ability, much like the effects of nicotine that have been witnessed in research. Besides its long-term effects on memory and cognition, for a certain percentage of the population, Modafinil is also proving to induce mania and psychoses as well as anxiety symptoms but, again, there is sparse research attesting to this issue conclusively.

However, the lack of regulation for Modafinil use is not only problematic for research purposes, it’s risky for the users. With unregulated use comes unregulated dosage and this means that the potential side effects could be witnessed far more rapidly in users that choose to over-estimate dosages. It is also worth noting that buying pharmaceuticals over the Internet is always a risk, with users having no way to verify what drugs they are about to consume and what effects that they will have.

Beyond the medical aspects of Modafinil, there are also ethical issues to consider in wider society that could well become more blatant and consequential with widespread use of the drug. For example, its covert and unregulated use in schools and colleges is still largely unacknowledged by administrations – should it be construed as cheating to use the drugs in exams or simply as an “unlocking” of potential that already existed? Furthermore, would Modafinil not also act to enhance the abilities of those that can afford the drug whilst putting others at a disadvantage, effectively increasing disparity in society? With such booming use of this ultimate ‘smart drug’ globally, the policies and answers regarding these questions must surely come soon.


Photo credit: Mitya Kushelevich and Vitalii KyryliukKyiv

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