The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Modafinil (Provigil) as treatment for people suffering from sleep disorders such as those who have narcolepsy, a brain disorder which causes an individual to suddenly fall asleep at inappropriate times or to experience excessive sleepiness.

Most of the drug's users, particularly students, use it off label when studying for exams believing that this could help them focus regardless of lack of evidence that the drug can work this way.

A review of 24 modafinil studies, however, has shown that modafinil actually works as a "smart drug" for some individuals. The findings, which was published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, suggest that in healthy people, the drug can improve attention, learning and memory as well as increase what is known as fluid intelligence, or a person's ability to solve problems and think creatively.

One study also provided evidence that the drug made tasks appear to be more pleasurable. The authors of the review also noted that while the capacity of modafinil as a performance-enhancing drug varied, the cognitive benefits of the drug is more consistently conferred in longer and more complex tasks that were tested.

It also appears that modafinil is safe for use as a smart drug since it has few side effects. In 70 percent of the studies that searched for side effects, there were only some incidences of headache, stomachache, nausea and insomnia.

The findings of the study raises concerns about the drug, which can be used without prescription and can be easily bought online, such that it gives student unfair advantage when making preparations or taking tests.

"In the face of vanishingly few side effects in these controlled environments, modafinil can be considered a cognitive enhancer," said study author Anna-Katharine Brem, from University of Oxford. "However, we would like to stress the point that with any method used to enhance cognition, ethical considerations always have to be taken into account."

Although the effects of modafinil on the brain is not yet well understood, experts think that the drug may possibly increase blood flow to the areas of the brain that play a role in attention and learning. Modafinil may also boost brain activity in areas that serve as conductors managing skills like reasoning, problem solving and memory.

"Modafinil is the first real example of a smart drug which can genuinely help, for example, with exam preparation," said European College of Neuropsychopharmacology president Guy Goodwin. 

Photo: Geoff Greer | Flickr

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