Researchers deem Modafinil to be world’s first safe ‘smart drug’

Signal of change / Researchers deem Modafinil to be world’s first safe ‘smart drug’

By Madhumitha Ardhanari / 06 Apr 2016

For decades, people have been taking ‘brain boosters’ such as Adderall and Ritalin to improve focus, motivation, and concentration. Yet the safety and actual efficacy of these methods have been unclear.

This changed recently, after a meta-analysis of 24 studies on the ‘smart drug’ Modafinil conducted by researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of Oxford determined it to be safe, and to actually enhance cognitive functioning. They concluded that the drug has minimal side effects and no addictive qualities in the short-term, while improving memory, attention, and learning in healthy people (note: it does not make you smarter).

Today, up to 11% of all US college students and one in five students in UK universities are purchasing Modafinil, initially developed to treat narcolepsy, off websites without prescriptions. The demand for the pill is growing amongst entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

So what?

With news that Modafinil has been deemed safe, “smart drugs” are likely to become ever more popular.

However, it is important to note the caveats of these studies. First, the long-term effects of the pills have yet to be observed. Second, the quality of these drugs and their effects on an individual can be uncertain, especially when they are purchased online without reference to the user’s medical history. Third, not all pills are created equal: some are more carefully regulated than others, depending on jurisdiction. Finally, taking a cocktail of smart drugs might have unknown cumulative side effects.

Students and workers taking pills without medical supervision in order to improve performance raises important questions. It seems that students are expected to study ever harder as academic curricula get more complex. After graduating, there are both expectations and self-imposed pressures to work at high levels of productivity in an insecure job market. As these different stresses start to feel insurmountable, pill-popping may appear to be a reasonable stopgap solution. But is it the best?

  • Might a Modafinil-augmented workforce be able to work without sleep or procrastination?
  • Will we go the way of mindfulness and meditation, or succumb to the lure of pill-popping productivity?

Image Credit: Unsplash / jesse orrico


University of Oxford (August 20, 2015) Review of ‘smart drug’ shows modafinil does enhance cognition

The Guardian (August 20, 2015) Narcolepsy medication modafinil is world's first safe 'smart drug'

Tech.Co (January 29, 2016) What Entrepreneurs Should Know About the Rise of Smart Drugs

Alternet (January 25, 2016) The Brave New World of Smart Drugs

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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