Modafinil is the world’s first safe “smart drug”, researchers at Harvard and Oxford universities have said, after performing a comprehensive review of the drug. They concluded that the drug, which is prescribed for narcolepsy but is increasingly taken without prescription by healthy people, can improve decision- making, problem-solving and possibly even make people think more creatively.

Dubbed as a “smart drug,” modafinil is becoming increasingly popular among students to improve their concentration before an exam. But is it safe and does it really work? A recent review by researchers suggests modafinil does work for some people and is safe in the short term.


Researchers evaluated 24 studies from January 1990 to December 2014 that looked at the cognitive benefits associated with taking modafinil. They found that while the so-called smart drug made little difference to creativity or working memory, it did improve decision-making and planning. The performance-enhancing capacity of modafinil varied depending on what task was being tested, with the cognitive-enhancing effects being most consistent with longer and more complex tasks. The findings were detailed in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology.

“This is the first overview of modafinil’s actions in non-sleep-deprived individuals since 2008, and so we were able to include a lot of recent data. Interestingly, we found that the type of test used to assess modafinil’s cognitive benefits has changed over the last few decades. In the past, people were using very basic tests of cognition, developed for neurologically-impaired individuals. In contrast, more recent studies have, in general, used more complex tests: when these are used, it appears that modafinil more reliably enhances cognition: in particular ‘higher’ brain functions that rely on contribution from multiple simple cognitive processes,” said Dr. Ruairidh McLennan Battleday, a University of Oxford researcher.


“We ended up having two main conclusions: first, that, in the face of vanishingly few side effects in these controlled environments, modafinil can be considered a cognitive enhancer; and, second that we need to figure out better ways of testing normal or even supra-normal cognition in a reliable manner. However, we would like to stress the point that with any method used to enhance cognition, ethical considerations always have to be taken into account: this is an important avenue for future work to explore,” Brem explained in a statement.

Of the studies that explored the effects of modafinil on a user’s mood and its side effects, 70% found it had minimal impact. Researchers concluded in the study that “Modafinil seems to be the first ‘smart drug’ that is reasonably safe for healthy people.”