Finally, a drug has been found that really boosts our brains, with few, non-fatal side effects: Modafinil, known in Israel as Provigil.
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Originally developed to treat narcolepsy and approved by various health authorities for that purpose, Modafinil can improve our planning and decision-making processes, and enhance our concentration, memory and creativity, according to a meta-analysis by scientists from Harvard and Oxford, published in the Journal of European Neuropsychopharmacology.
Modafinil is a nervous system stimulant. So is coffee. Like the bean, it fights sleepiness in narcoleptics and at the other end of the rainbow, helps people suffering from apnea, which keeps them awake at night and commensurately shattered during the day.
Unlike coffee, Modafinil has beneficial effects on learning and cognition, the scientists concluded after reading 24 papers on the drug published from 1990 to the end of 2014.
The side effects, in case you're wondering, are like coffee too – they may include anxiety, stomach ache, headache and even nausea. That's about it so far. It bears mention that the same side effects were reported in the placebo group, which could indicate they were a figment of the human condition, not of some low-level toxic effect.
By the way, one shouldn't indulge in Modafinil and coffee together, unless you like climbing the walls. And don't drink alcohol – your liver won't appreciate the combination.
The hypertension and tachycardia sometimes observed with other nervous system stimulants have not been reported for Modafinil, which in most countries, is a prescription drug. That means you can't just pick it up with aspirin and chewing gum at the local drugstore, but anecdotally, some doctors pretty amenable to prescribing it for dysfunction beyond sleep disorders – the Telegraph, for one, reports that Modafinil is being taken by one in four swotters at Oxford and Cambridge.
How Modafinil works on our brain chemistry is unknown, though a number of scientific teams are working on the conundrum and theories abound.
Although it was invented in the late 1970s, nobody knows how long-term use will affect us, which bears stressing. Also, Modafinil shouldn’t be abused. Although clinical trials fell short of actually killing anybody, even with heavy doses of the drug, think about being on a mega-caffeine jag and you have the idea. It's unpleasant and irritability and insomnia are just the start of it.
By the way, Modafinil can interact in unfortunate ways with certain kinds of birth control pills, if pregnancy is considered an unfortunate side effect.
So, if it boosts our brain power, especially when doing difficult, dull things, should we take it?
That's an ethical question, and one lesson of sports doping come to mind. Athletes caught using enhancers have argued that they have no choice if they want to succeed, because "everybody does it."
If "everybody" else is taking Modafinil, then would not taking it leave us behind? If we drink stimulants, and a lot of us do, why not go one better?
It's up to you and your doctor. But let's just say that use of smartphone navigational applications has been associated with loss of our spatial orientation ability and navigational skill.
The area of the brain responsible for our navigational skills is the hippocampus. It's the part of our brain that reads maps. A study done in 1999 at the University College in London found that taxi drivers have bigger hippocampi than other people. Then a series of studies at McGill University concluded that depending on smartphone navigational technology (GPS) may lead the poor, underexploited hippocampus to atrophy, over time. That in turn could lead to neuro-degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's.