This ‘Smart Drug’ Can Make You Brilliant, Creative, Decisive — But It’s Not Exactly Legal

If you have a sleep disorder, like narcolepsy, you’ve probably heard of Modafinil. But if you’re a college kid cramming for exams and looking for a brain boost, you’ve probably heard of it, too. That’s because the medication is being used illicitly as a so-called “smart drug,” and science has verified that it actually works.

Use of Modafinil as a smart drug is, of course, prohibited, because the folks using it for this purpose don’t have a prescription. That hasn’t stopped anyone from giving it a shot, as there are few side effects and immediate cognitive benefits, the Guardian reported.

It seems too good to be to be true, or like something straight out of Bradley Cooper’s 2011 film (and upcoming TV show) Limitless: A drug that can make you smart, creative, alert, and decisive. With all those benefits, it stands to reason people are wondering if its use could pose an ethical quandary.

After all, as Medical Daily pointed out, it can be classified as “mind-altering,” and plenty of harmful drugs have been given that description. It has been a narcolepsy drug since 2002, but can be found easily online off-market by students in the U.K. and U.S. to boost their smarts before a test. About one in five people have used drugs for this purpose, and 44 percent pick Modafinil.

To determine if the smart drug lives up to its moniker, researchers at Oxford and Harvard Medical School reviewed numerous studies on the prescription, conducted from 1990 to last year. About 24 of those studies examined the smart drug’s effect on decision making, learning flexibility, memory, and creativity. And over time, the research looked into how Modafinil effect higher forms of thinking.

For healthy people, in other words people without a sleep disorder, it enhances attention, boosts the ability to learn and retain memories, and improves “fluid intelligence,” or the ability to solve problems and be creative. It also makes tasks more fun. Side effects are minimal and it isn’t addictive, though long-term effects aren’t yet known.

“Modafinil seems to be the first ‘smart drug’ that is reasonably safe for healthy people,” said Anna-Katharine Brem, co-author of the review.

How does the so-called smart drug work? Scientists aren’t sure, but they theorize that it increases blood flow to areas of the brain that are dedicated to attention and learning, and could augment brain activity in spots that are considered “conductors.” These manage memory, reasoning, and problem solving.

However, Live Science reported some details that somewhat lessen the excitement about the smart drug, noting that its improvement on attention wasn’t consistent, the effect on creativity was minimal, and didn’t help people’s “working memory, flexibility of thought or ability to divide their attention.”

One in five students can’t be wrong, though. If Modafinil is their drug of choice, it must work somehow. And since the medication isn’t authorized for use as an intelligence booster, using it for any other purpose is against the law.

Right now, we can’t “classify, condone, or condemn” a performance-enhancing drug like Modafinil, especially since it doesn’t seem harmful — yet, noted scientist Guy Goodwin. And if people want it, an illegal market will pop up — political action against the smart drug may follow.

According to Brem, since the smart drug fiddles with our brains, basically making us more efficient human beings, its use may lead to quite a debate.

“We’re not saying ‘go out and take this drug and your life will be better.’ It is still unlicensed for healthy people — but it is time for a wider debate on how to integrate cognitive enhancement into our lives. We need to explore the ethics, and scientist, politicians and the public need to be involved.”

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