"Smart" Drugs Might Not Actually Make You Smarter

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Now a favorite among those on the quad and on Wall Street alike, "smart" drugs such as modafinil seem to be all the rage for an illicit dose of brainpower. But, new research suggests they may not be all they're cracked up to be.
The study, published yesterday in PLOS One, investigated whether or not modafinil can live up to its college-campus reputation. Although it's often prescribed for treating narcolepsy, modafinil (brand name Provigil) is commonly used recreationally for its stimulant effects, which are achieved through actions on the brain's dopamine system. While the drug's exact mechanisms are still unclear, it has been increasingly used among students to increase focus and a feeling of wakefulness.
For this study, the researchers were particularly interested in seeing the drug's effects in people who don't necessarily need to take it — and, therefore, weren't given a prescription for it. To do so, they gave 64 healthy participants (with an average age of about 25) either a 200mg dose of modafinil or a placebo. Then, the participants had to take a sentence-completion test, which required quick answers. Results showed that all participants made similar amounts of errors on the test, but those who'd received the drug took longer to give their answers than those in the placebo group. So, not only did modafinil not give people a cognitive boost, it may have actually hindered their performance.
But, past research is a bit divided on the effects of modafinil in non-narcoleptic participants. Some studies suggest that modafinil can improve performance in working memory and planning tasks. But, other studies haven't seen the same effects. And, of course, there are concerns about whether or not nootropic drugs are habit-forming.
So, if your problem is staying awake and focused, you might want to look into getting better sleep before looking into nootropic substances. By sticking to a normal schedule and staying away from screens, you'll be able to fall asleep easier, wake up earlier, and get all your important things done — without that pill-sized prep.