Cephalon’s Narcolepsy Drug Modafinil May Be World’s First Safe ‘Smart Drug,’ Study Says

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August 21, 2015
By Alex Keown, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

LONDON – A drug approved for the treatment of the sleeping disorder narcolepsy may also have uses to improve attention, intelligence, learning and memory, a new study conducted by Harvard Medical School and Oxford University has found.

Cephalon’s modafinil, which is being dubbed the world’s first “smart drug” by some, can be used to not only treat the sleeping disorder, but also to enhance an individual’s ability to solve problems and think creatively, according to the research conducted by Drs. Ruairidh Battleday and Anna-Katharine Brem, of Oxford and Harvard respectively. The two physicians examined 24 studies from 1990 to 2014 on modafinil and found it “made no difference to working memory, or flexibility of thought, but did improve decision-making and planning.”

Battleday said recent studies of cognition have become more complex and when those are considered, “it appears that modafinil more reliably enhances cognition: in particular ‘higher’ brain functions that rely on contribution from multiple simple cognitive processes.”

Not only was the drug effective in enhancing mental gymnastics, there were few side effects reported over the short term. Some side effects that were reported include insomnia, upset stomach, headache and nausea. However, those side effects were also reported in placebo groups, the researchers said.

There was not significant data on the long-term effects of modafinil.

With few minor side effects and a positive impact on cognition, the researchers concluded that modafinil “can be considered a cognitive enhancer,” Brem said in a statement.

Guy Goodwin, president of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, said modafinil is “the first real example of a ‘smart drug’, which can genuinely help, for example, with exam preparation.”

The physicians were quick to point out that any efforts to use the drug to enhance cognition may raise some ethical questions and should open up new avenues for study. Regulatory bodies would also have issues establishing guidelines for such a drug, the authors say.

“The non-medical use of mind altering drugs has hitherto broadly conflicted with the work ethic of many societies, has been very popular but leads to a range of demonstrable harms. Regulation has been and remains problematic. We cannot know either if demand for modafinil in the same societies will actually be significant, whether society will be more accepting and how regulation will then be framed,” Goodwin said.

The U.K.-based The Guardian said modafinil, which is marketed in England as Provigil, is often used by college students who are looking for an extra academic edge. The medication can be found for sale on several websites without a prescription, the Guardian said.

While there are other medications, such as the ADHD drug Ritalin, can be used in an off-brand manner by students to “hone” their thinking, the medication does have far more side effects than modafinil.