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Modafinil (Wikipedia link) is a drug approved in many countries for specific medical conditions such as narcolepsy. We don't, however, have a good idea how it works.

But is is one of several drugs (including the unrelated stimulant Ritalin, which is approved for use in ADHD) which are believed by many to be cognitive enhancers. According to a BBC story:

It has been used by the military to keep soldiers awake in times of combat and its use is thought to be on the rise among shift workers, such as nurses, doctors, and pilots. Modafinil is also said to be popular among jet-lagged academics...

...A survey of 1,400 adults carried out by Nature found that one in five said they had taken Ritalin, Provigil (modafinil) or beta-blockers to stimulate focus, concentration, or memory - not for any medical condition.

A more recent BBC story on the ethical issues raised by the possibility of cognitive enhancers also highlights how significant their use is thought to be:

Several surveys reveal that many students now use brain-enhancing “smart” pills to help boost their exam grades, which raises the question about whether colleges and universities should insist candidates are “clean” in the same way that Olympic athletes have to prove they are drug-free to compete... ...Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, of the Medical Research Council and who chaired one of the workshop sessions that formulated the report, said: "It was clear from discussions that cognitive-enhancing drugs present the greatest immediate challenge for regulators and other policymakers.

"They are simple to take, already available without prescription, and are increasingly being used by healthy individuals."

So Modafinil is clearly being used off label and people believe its use improves their performance. But is there clear evidence that it improves intellectual performance? In simpler language, does Modafinil make you smarter?

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    I was under the impression that Modafinil is useful for situations where you can't get enough sleep (or want to sleep less), not as a general-purpose cognitive enhancer. – Reinstate Monica Nov 7 '12 at 18:26
  • @BrendanLong Maybe. But people seem to regard it as a general purpose drug. I'm interested in what the actual evidence says on balance. If it only works for people with sleep derivation, that is a good answer. – matt_black Nov 7 '12 at 23:53
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    the report in nature tilted "Professor's little helper" Nature 450, 1157-1159 (20 December 2007) | dx.doi.org/10.1038/4501157a was specifically focused on faculty, so the statistic you provide is without important information about the population for which the findings are relevant. – David LeBauer Nov 9 '12 at 2:09
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    Few students get 8 hours of sleep every day in exam time. The point of Modafinil is to make people cognitively alert. Being more alert means that you perform better on tests. Whether that means that you are smarter is a open debate. – Christian Oct 15 '13 at 11:51
  • @matt_black Does anyone claim that Modafinil makes you smarter? – user5582 Oct 15 '13 at 20:55
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It depends what you mean by "smarter" but there are real beneficial effects in some areas

Modafinil is widely believed (and widely used) to create some sort of cognitive enhancement. But the evidence has been a little mixed and often thought to be driven by its impact on sleep-deprived people (which is related to the licensed use).

A recent systematic review (free abstract, paywalled full paper) has tried to make some sense of the other studies done in the last quarter century. It discusses the problems with previous studies thus:

In addition to its approved use treating excessive somnolence, modafinil is thought to be used widely off-prescription for cognitive enhancement. However, despite this popularity, there has been little consensus on the extent and nature of the cognitive effects of modafinil in healthy, non-sleep-deprived humans. This problem is compounded by methodological discrepancies within the literature, and reliance on psychometric tests designed to detect cognitive effects in ill rather than healthy populations. In order to provide an up-to-date systematic evaluation that addresses these concerns, we searched MEDLINE with the terms “modafinil” and “cognitive”, and reviewed all resultant primary studies in English from January 1990 until December 2014 investigating the cognitive actions of modafinil in healthy non-sleep-deprived humans.

And concludes (my emphasis):

We found that whilst most studies employing basic testing paradigms show that modafinil intake enhances executive function, only half show improvements in attention and learning and memory, and a few even report impairments in divergent creative thinking. In contrast, when more complex assessments are used, modafinil appears to consistently engender enhancement of attention, executive functions, and learning. Importantly, we did not observe any preponderances for side effects or mood changes.

In other words, when the types of cognitive improvement are properly evaluated, there are systematic improvement found for some specific cognitive processes.

In summarising the work, Guy Goodwin, President of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, said this (again, my emphasis):

This overview suggests that, on current evidence, modafinil enhances cognition independent of its known effects in sleep disordered populations. Thus, the authors say that ‘modafinil may well deserve the title of the first well-validated pharmaceutical nootropic agent’. In other words, it’s the first real example of a ‘smart drug’, which can genuinely help, for example, with exam preparation.

(the quote is reported here).

So if passing exams and making decisions based on focussed attention to complex data is what counts as being smart, it appears that modafinil will help you be smarter.

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Kind of. I will refer to this paper, because it it a review of current studies on this topic. The authors have reviewed studies of psychostimulants in healthy young (12-25 years of age) people. Regarding modafinil, all studies compared it to placebo, or caffeine, or other drugs. While this might not be definitive evidence, it is the best we have at the moment - i is still in press, after all.

Intellectual performance is a broad concept, most tests will measure a few dimensions of it. It seems that modafinil can increase attention, specially the ability to make rapid shifts in constant attention, which could be required on some tasks. Also, to quote the article (note: I suppressed statistical data for easier readability):

Those who took modafinil demonstrated greater subjective attention and alertness, greater objective accuracy in regards to recall (...), visual memory (...) and spatial planing (...), and decreased latency on short-term memory tasks and a risk-reward paradigm.

However, it seems that some of those could be, at least partially attributed to decreased sleepiness, and an increase in self-confidence that might be related to the increased alertness of a direct effect of the medication.

Participants believed that improvements would be greater than they are, which the authors contributed to increased vigor. In non-sleep deprived participants, modafinil does not appear to induce over-confidence in cognitive abilities (...) while still improving cognitive performance in logical reasoning (accuracy and response times), vigilance and serial reaction time.

So, yeah, it can make you kind of smarter, but: 1) it is only for some aspects of intelligence, mainly those related to attention and awareness 2) you will probably think it makes you smarter than you really get to be.

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