‘Smart’ Pills May Slow Down Smart People

Modafinil may slow response times and impair accuracy among healthy people

In search of easy fixes to boost mental abilities, many students and professionals alike have turned to a medication called modafinil. It turns out this so-called “smart drug” may not make smart people any smarter, and it may even slow them down.

Researchers recently tested whether modafinil could improve performance on a famous neuropsychological test called the Hayling Sentence Completion Test.

“We looked at how the drug acted when you are required to respond accurately and in a timely manner,” said lead researcher Dr. Ahmed Dahir Mohamed, of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, in a press statement. “Our results were completely opposite to the results we expected.”

Dr. Mohamed and co-author Chris Roberts Lewis, of Towson University, found that healthy people who took modafinil had slower response times and did not perform any more accurately than people who did not take the medication.

Modafinil, which is a central nervous system stimulant marketed under the brand name Provigil, is a prescription medication used to treat adults with certain sleep disorders, including narcolepsy and shift work sleep disorder. However, according to these study authors, some healthy people without sleep disorders are using modafinil to boost mental function, even though the medication is not officially approved for this use.

Many sports organizations have banned modafinil because it has been marked as a performance-enhancing drug. Some athletes — including Turkish basketball star Diana Taurasi in 2010 — have been banned from playing their sports because they used modafinil.

“It has been argued that modafinil might improve your performance by delaying your ability to respond. It have been suggested this ‘delay dependent improvement’ might improve cognitive performance by making people less impulsive,” Dr. Mohamed explained. “We found no evidence to support those claims.”

Instead, Dr. Mohamed said, this study — which was published Nov. 12 in PLOS ONE — revealed that “when a task required instant reactions, the drug just increased reaction times with no improvement to cognitive performance.”

But these findings don’t mean that modafinil cannot boost mental function for anyone. Previous research by Dr. Mohamed suggests that some people might get a subtle benefit from modafinil.

For this previous research, published in September in The Journal of Creative Behaviour, Dr. Mohamed tested people’s creative problem-solving abilities after taking modafinil. Those who weren’t really creative to begin with had improved creativity after taking the medication. In those who had a creative personality, however, modafinil appeared to reduce their creative abilities.

According to Dr. Mohamed, “It looks like modafinil is not helpful for healthy individuals and it might even impair their ability to respond and might stifle their lateral [creative] thinking, while people who have some sort of deficiency in creativity are helped by the drug.”