Is Modafinil Safe As A 'Smart Drug'? Over A Decade Of Study Suggests So

Modafinil, along with being a "wakefulness promoter" prescribed to narcoleptics and chronic fatigue sufferers, has found a niche as a smart drug or "nootropic" that anyone can take to boost concentration and focus. While the risks haven't been studied conclusively, a new paper has made a brave attempt to collate research from the last 14 years to form some sort of conclusion.

After analysing 24 papers on the affects of modafinil, RM Battleday and Anna-Katharine Brem of Oxford University's Department of Experimental Psychology concluded that the drug "appears to consistently engender enhancement of attention, executive functions, and learning" without a "preponderances for side effects or mood changes".

It's important to note that the authors did not conduct the experiments themselves, rather, they gathered research from a wide variety of sources to put together a more complete picture of modafinil's effects on healthy imbibers:

In order to provide an up-to-date systematic evaluation that addresses these concerns, we searched MEDLINE with the terms "modafinil" and "cognitive", and reviewed all resultant primary studies in English from January 1990 until December 2014 investigating the cognitive actions of modafinil in healthy non-sleep-deprived humans.

The end result? That modafinil could very well be a safe smart drug -- a pill you can pop if you're lacking in the creativity or concentration departments:

...modafinil appears to consistently engender enhancement of attention, executive functions, and learning. Importantly, we did not observe any preponderances for side effects or mood changes. Finally, in light of the methodological discrepancies encountered within this literature, we conclude with a series of recommendations on how to optimally detect valid, robust, and consistent effects in healthy populations that should aid future assessment of neuroenhancement.

That last bit is worth noting. As psychologist James Thompson points out, the paper doesn't give the drug the all-clear, rather, it's laid the groundwork for more thorough studies, so future research can deliver more focused data:

I do not find the case for Modafinil proved, and I suspect the authors are not bowled over by the effect, but if their suggestions are followed a larger study with more sensitive, repeated cognitive measures could settle the issue. Till then, it might be best to stick to black coffee.

Not that Australians can easily knock the stuff back anyway. Locally, modafinil is a prescription-only drug and is usually sold in the form of Modavigil (pictured). That said, it can be purchased overseas and depending on how customs is feeling that day, it might even get through.

[European Neuropsychopharmacology, via The Guardian]