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“Smart” Drugs Don’t Work If You’re Already Smart, Study Says

New research shows that alertness drug modafinil can impair cognition in test takers.

“Smart” Drugs Don’t Work If You’re Already Smart, Study Says
[Photo: Flickr user Eric]

Fighter pilots and emergency room workers often take the drug modafinil to stay awake and alert, but can it really make you sharper? A new study shows that people who attempt to boost their cognitive abilities with modafinil–a la Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless–could be doing more harm than good.

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Conducted by Dr. Ahmed Dahir Mohamed of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, the research indicates that modafinil (known in non-generic form as Provigil) actually impairs the performance of students who use the drug before taking an exam. “We looked at how the drug acted when you are required to respond accurately and in a timely manner. Our findings were completely opposite to the results we expected,” Mohamed says in a press release.

In a double-blind study, Mohamed administered modafinil to 32 test subjects. Another 32 were given a placebo. Each participant was tasked with completing the Hayling Sentence Completion Test–which asks subjects to complete sentences with the last word missing–and instructed to answer quickly and accurately. Those who were given the drug posted slower reaction times and did not perform better on the task, which Mohamed says contradicts previous claims:

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

Modafinil can, however, help those who are less creative, as Mohamed notes: “It looks like modafinil is not helpful for healthy individuals and it might even impair their ability to respond and might stifle their lateral thinking, while people who have some sort of deficiency in creativity are helped by the drug.” This study comes on the heels of another that Mohamed recently published, in which modafinil hurt the takers’ ability to respond creatively–especially when “outside the box” answers were sought, a common aspect of the Hayling test.

So what can you do to get (even) smarter, as a healthy person with normal cognition levels? Not much. Mohamed says that it’s difficult to up your smarts if you’re an adult functioning at the optimum level, but there’s still hope for the teens of the world: Things like a good diet and mindfulness could improve cognition in their developing brains.

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