Modafinil – effective or not?

Ever heard of smart drugs? What about Modafinil? Well according to a survey of almost 2000 students from UK universities, it seems 1 in 5 of us have tried it.

The smart drug of smart drugs Modafinil (street name “daffy”) is part of a group of drugs called eugeroics that promote wakefulness and attentiveness. Usually prescribed for those with sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, the effects of Modafinil mean that it has become the new ‘study drug’, as it temporarily improves memory and increases efficiency when revising.

The drug is not very addictive, and has very few side effects which include becoming a bit antisocial (which I suppose should be expected with a drug that gives you tunnel vision) and apparently you go to the loo a lot. In return, the drug affects a number of the brain’s neurotransmitters, each separately creating useful effects. Firstly, it increases dopamine production, which will help keep you awake and feel good about whatever you are doing (dopamine is part of the body’s self-reward system). It also affects histamine levels, which stimulates wakefulness, and norepinephrine, which both increases alertness and improves focus. Finally, through its influence on the neurotransmitter glutamate, it is thought to improve short-term memory by up to 10%, which obviously serves a great purpose for those cramming for exams.

However, the way the drug is used can impact its effectiveness. During exam season, many students were found to be using doses day after day so that they could continue to study. The backlash of this was that the wakefulness produced within their bodies meant that they couldn’t sleep properly, and many students were being kept in a perpetual liminal state: between being asleep and awake. From this, it might seem that it is only instances of overuse that pose a problem. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, as the wakefulness that Modafinil produces has the potential to disrupt the individual’s sleep pattern after just one dose. The main issue with this is, since we consolidate learned knowledge when we sleep, a poor nights sleep could interfere with this consolidating process and in fact, end up being counterproductive for those hoping to use Modafinil to enhance their learning.

Another issue is that, like many other drugs such as nicotine and coffee, they can act as very effective stimulants as a one-off, but when taken regularly, it is thought that one would build up a tolerance. The problem then arises when an individual adapts to that level of drug and, when they are suddenly deprived, will not function as adequately as someone managing without. We see this illustrated in everyday life when we realise the amount of people we know who “can’t survive” without their morning cup of coffee. Studies have thus proven that once an individual adapts to manage a regular dose of a substance, that, after a time, the substance only serves to bring them back to a normal level of functioning. Experts have therefore suggested that Modafinil, used irresponsibly, could have the same effects.

Here is where we come to the final issue: the experts. Because Modafinil in under-researched, and its long-term effects haven’t been studied, much of the medical commentary on the drug is speculative. However, this doesn’t mean their concerns aren’t valid, and there has been some worrying evidence to suggest that use of the drug could cause potential damage to areas of the brain concerning memory and cognitive processing. But since there haven’t been any long-term studies to prove this (or prove otherwise), there is no way to be sure exactly.

With its benefits seeming to far outweigh the cons from reviewers across the board, it’s easy to see why this smart drug has been so popular amongst the best procrastinators of this modern world. But with students using it willy-nilly to help cram for exams, and without knowing the long-term effects, it has the potential to cause serious damage to users’ cognitive and emotional health. Use with care and caution, although if your brain’s working normally, then best not at all…!


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January 2022
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