Modafinil: why it's really the 'not-so-smart' drug

The new student term is now in full swing. University can be an extremely rewarding experience for young people who are learning new things, making new friends and having to fend for themselves, often for the first time.

Of course, the usual pressures of life still exist; money, relationships, drugs and alcohol, stress and performance. People have always coped with these pressures in different ways, but the pressure to perform well in your degree has never been higher.

Now, the rise in the popularity of using 'smart drugs' appears to be tempting some students into trying riskier ways in order to improve their performance.

At the start of this new academic term our government issued a health warning to new students, often called 'Freshers', about the dangers of buying fake 'smart drugs' online. But for me the issues go much deeper than this.

What are 'smart drugs'?

'Smart drug' is a term that's been coined to describe a medicine used to improve concentration and attention span and hence improve performance in mental tasks. The name implies that it makes you smarter, but the drugs used are really just stimulants, like caffeine or amphetamine. There are two key medicines that have been referred to as smart drugs; methylphenidate (RitalinĀ®), acontrolled drug used for children with ADHD, and modafinil (PrivigilĀ®). Modafinil is increasingly in the media spotlight with a number of universities reporting increased use amongst their students[i][ii] and some studies suggesting that it might actually work [iii].

More about modafinil

Modafinil is a prescription only medicine (POM) that is used to treat a sleeping disorder called narcolepsy. People with narcolepsy feel tired and sleepy during the day but have difficulty sleeping at night. Modafinil is a stimulant drug so it causes alertness and wakefulness. The medicine can help people with narcolepsy stay awake during the day and establish a more normal sleeping pattern. It is sometimes prescribed to help shift workers cope with disturbed sleep and changing shift patterns, although it's not licensed by the manufacturer for this use.

These stimulating effects have led to modafinil being used by healthy, non-sleep deprived people to try and improve their performance at work or in exams. The drug supposedly allows them to study or work for longer periods of time without breaks and may improve their ability to concentrate on mental tasks. But how safe is it, and does it really work?


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