I know it’s tempting. The long hours and the impending deadlines for essays and lab reports can easily send a student into a stupor of dread. The overwhelming desire to be done with your work and studying makes it impossible for you to study.
The subject is too dry, too boring, and you have been sitting down for four hours. It would be great if science, so famed for solving many other problems (and creating many too), could devise a solution to your problems.
Enter modafinil, hailed by many as the first validated, safe and effective cognitive enhancer. It was created first by military agencies’ research departments for fatigued soldiers in combat zones and then transferred to civilian use to combat narcolepsy. It is now used more often than not, without prescription, to enhance focus and concentration.
Well, marketing that to students should be pretty easy – in 2014 the Tab online newspaper reported that, from a survey of 2000 students, one in five had taken modafinil. There’s plenty of evidence to back its immediate effectivess. A meta-analysis by the Cochrane Collaboration showed that modafinil helped workers improve their “alertness during night shifts”by a small amount, although the participants reported “headache and nausea” as the “most common side effects”.
What does it do?
Modafinil is supposed to increase the activity of three neurotransmitters, namely dopamine, norepinephrine and histamine.
Dopamine increases the ability to be interested in a topic or activity since it is involved in the pleasure and rewarding system of the brain; norepinephrine increases alertness and sensitivity to stimuli as part of the body’s natural defences, while histamine promotes general wakefulness.
So far, one can see very few negatives, although it’s worth bearing in mind that cocaine and methamphetamines have the same effect, only much stronger, on dopamine levels as modafinil. At the moment, there is no evidence of modafinil being addictive.
Modafinil is currently acquirable in the UK either through a pharmacy, with prescription, or online. Posession is not classified as illegal, but several other countries, such as the US, have made it illegal to buy without a doctor’s orders.
More interestingly, modafinil was in the spotlight in 2004 when several world athletes were found to be using it as a physical performance enhancing agent. The World Anti-Doping Agency added it to their “Prohibited List”.
A need for more evidence
The absence of substantial proven negative effects from modafinil might very well be due to the absence of completed long-term studies on the matter.
A search through the Cochrane Collaboration’s database brings up mostly studies focused purely on narcoleptics or people with sleeping conditions. Modafinil is an easily “sexed-up” science topic, because it sells well, and the consequences of the drug tend to be unreported.
In 2015, the British Medical Journal emphasised that the benefits of modafinil only outstrip the downsides when taken for narcolepsy or for other medical treatment.
Moreover, there is little to no evidence whatsoever for the long-term implications of modafinil. We have no idea if there are any physical or neurochemical consequences to using modafinil and, since it operates in a mechanism similar to caffeine and nicotine, it is possible that its effectiveness deteriorates just as starkly. Ok, so maybe prolonged use isn’t such a good idea – perhaps we should use it sparingly?
Performance enhancing ethics
Even then you are left with two problems: the drug’s supply and the ethical implications of abuse. In the UK, modafinil can only be acquired online, and though possession without prescription isn’t illegal, ordering a drug over the web, where you have very little, if any, way of verifying its safety, could be dangerous.
The ethical problem arises when you consider the long term implication of its use, be it healthy or not: is it fair? What happens if a trend occurs where parents begin to supply their children with modafinil so they do better in exams in order to guarantee them a future in an increasingly competitive world? Or where you outstrip your competitors in an assessment centre purely due to the drug: did you get the job fairly? Rather than developing the highly rated skill of time management, you’d be falling into the bad habit of cramming 48 hours of intense study on drugs.
Modafinil could become the new symptom of a society that promotes performance, work and achievement over happiness and health. If you don’t consider that worrying, remind yourself that you’re taking a drug meant to keep soldiers from being ambushed and killed – are your exams on that same level of importance?