The world’s first true “smart drug” enhances cognition and is deemed safe by health experts

A perfect start to the day.
A perfect start to the day.
Image: Carsten Schertzer/Flickr CC-BY
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Most people looking for a cognitive boost in the morning reach for a cup of coffee or tea. But all caffeine really does is lift up your mood and improve focus, and that is why it isn’t considered a “pure cognitive enhancer.”

There is, however, a real contender for that title: modafinil (also sold as Provigil). This drug—normally used to treat a sleep disorder—may be the world’s first true smart drug, according to a new systematic review. It enhances attention, improves learning, and boosts “fluid intelligence”—which we use to solve problems and think creatively. And it does all that without the addictive qualities of caffeine (also without the delicious variety of drinkable formats, but that’s arguably a small price to pay).

We don’t fully understand how the drug works, but one theory is that it enhances brain activity in areas that manage those skills. The review, published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, considers 24 placebo-controlled studies of healthy, non-sleep-deprived people conducted between 1990 and 2014. Such an analysis overcomes some of the limitations of each of the smaller studies, such as narrow demographics or conflicting results, and draws an overarching conclusion.

Modafinil has been around for a long time, and its off-label use as smart drug is well-known in some circles. It is increasingly used by students across US and UK universities. A 2008 poll of readers of the science journal Nature, for example, found that nearly half of those who admitted to using cognitive enhancers had taken modafinil .

What’s lacking is long-term data—important because study of other promising enhancers has shown that the effect may not last over time. Crucially, however, the new systematic review deems modafinil safe for widespread use. Some previous studies had shown that modafinil led to a small drop in creativity in highly creative people, but the new review says that those negative effects are not seen consistently.

The use of cognitive enhancers is seen by many as cheating, and it is often compared to doping in sports. However, Joao Fabiano, a researcher at the University of Oxford, argues that modafinil’s use should not be seen any differently than caffeine’s. If anything, given that modafinil does more than caffeine, without the downside of addiction, perhaps we should put down that double shot of espresso and take a pill instead.

The cropped image is provided by Carsten Schertzer on Flickr under a CC-BY license.