Do These Drugs Make You Smarter?

Some students are taking "smart drugs" to perform better in school, but are these drugs actually working? Tara reveals the truth.

A so-called "smart drug" does not appear to have the desired effect many users hope, according to a new study. Dr. Ahmed Dahir Mohammed, at the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus, co-authored a study recently published in the November 12 edition of PLOS ONE that looked at the effects of Modafinil (aka Provigil), an FDA-approved drug regularly used to increase attention and wakefulness.

Dr. Mohammed administered the drug to 32 participants and gave a placebo to 32 other people. Then, the subjects underwent the Hayling Sentence Completion Test, a common neuropsychological task, in which they had to complete a sentence with missing words. Those who took modafinil tended to have slower reaction times and more difficulty filling in the sentences, compared with those who took the placebo. This was somewhat expected, as people who use it claim that a delayed reaction time helps people make more contemplated, less impulsive cognitive choices. 

This may not be the case, though. The study showed that people in both groups made a similar number of errors in the cognitive test. Previous studies seem to corroborate such findings, which say Modafinil may not improve spatial working memory, logic memory, verbal fluency, attention shifting, spatial planning, or sustained attention in healthy people. Past research has also looked at modafinil's effect on people's creativity and shown that, while creative people are not much affected by the drug, non-creative types do show boosts in creativity when they take modafinil.

Regardless, modafinil is rapidly becoming a popular drug among professionals, particularly those in the fast-paced tech and financial fields. In 2013, a study published by the University of California, San Francisco found that prescriptions for modafinil in the U.S. had gone up tenfold in the past decade. It's also worth noting that the FDA initially approved the drug to treat narcolepsy, but the vast majority of users today take it for supposed cognitive benefits.

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Modafinil Increases the Latency of Response in the Hayling Sentence Completion Test in Healthy Volunteers: A Randomised Controlled Trial (via PLOS ONE)
“Modafinil is a medication licensed for the treatment of narcolepsy. However, it has been reported that healthy individuals without wakefulness disorders are using modafinil off-label to enhance cognitive functioning.”