Metastudy confirms effect – but only with more complex cognitive performance

Brain Doping: Modafinil works

The active ingredient modafinil can actually improve cognitive performance. However, the positive effect only manifests itself in more complex mental processes, not in simple memory tasks, as a meta-study shows. The drug, which is only approved for narcolepsy and severe sleep disorders, is a real neuro-enhancer in the researchers’ opinion – raising ethical questions.

Actually, it should help against narcolepsy and severe jet lag, but under the table the active ingredient modafinil has long been traded as a neuro-enhancer – as a means to increase mental performance. Retired students take exams to learn better, business people to important dates. Whether Modafinil actually promotes concentration and memory and with whom, has been highly controversial.

Nothing for simple memory tasks

Ruairidh Battleday of the University of Oxford and his colleague Anna-Katharine Brem of the Harvard Medical School took this opportunity for a meta-study. They evaluated all studies on the impact of modafinil on learning and memory, decision-making and planning, creativity and mental flexibility, which appeared between 1990 and 2014. They were found in 24 studies.

It showed: The intake of modalert does not seem to have a significant effect on the working memory. For simple memory tasks or short-term memory, this neuro-enhancer brings nothing – which could explain why older studies came to rather mixed results. Also, the flexibility of thinking was not measurably positively influenced in the study participants, as the researchers report.

Positive effect for complex tasks

However, this is not the case with more complex tasks: “When used, Modafinil seems to increase intellectual performance more reliably,” says Battleday. “This is especially true for higher brain functions, in which many individual cognitive processes are involved.” The drug also improves decision-making and planning.

According to the researchers, modafinil is actually a neuro-enhancer. “In other words, Modafinil is the first true example of a ‘smart drug’ that can really help, such as exam preparation,” Battleday said. For the substance causes an increase in mental performance even in healthy, well-rested people.

Contradiction in the side effects

Rather surprising is the result of the researchers to the side effects of Modafinil. Because according to their statements, 70 percent of the studies evaluated found no effect of the drug on the mood of the subjects. In addition, side effects such as headache, nausea or sleep disorders were hardly more common than in the placebo groups.

This, however, diametrically contradicts the conclusions reached by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in February 2011, stating that the benefit-risk balance of modafinil is “no longer considered favorable” for all applications except heavy narcolepsy. In other words, the risk of being harmed by side effects is significantly higher than the hoped-for effect. You can buy modafinil from
Here is the full video about modafinil:

Ethical concerns

However, the researchers also emphasize one thing: “As with any method used to improve cognitive performance, ethical considerations must be included,” states Brem. Many see these funds as unfair, because it manipulates their own chances of success at the expense of undoped competitors, as with doping in sports thanks to pharmaceutical aids. In the long term, this could even lead to the pressure to succeed also drives those who do not want to use such funds for brain doping.

“Earlier ethical discussions of such remedies were based on extravagant effects before it was clear they were even effective,” comments Guy Goodwin, director of the College of Neuropsychopharmacology. “But the new data means that the ethical debate is real: how should we evaluate a means that increases performance even among those who have no pre-existing mental limitations?”

However, Modafinil is anyway only allowed for special medical conditions and is sold only by prescription. A so-called off-label use, the use of any other than the officially approved disease is not accepted, a use of healthy is prohibited.

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