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Modafinil: the future of neuroenhancement?

smart pills

The ‘smart pill’ has huge potential to boost cognitive function, making us more productive and innovative, but we need to improve the way that we analyse the effect this kind of drug has on both healthy brains and wider society before we can consider who gets to use the drugs

Extension of our ‘natural’ capacities through science and technology is not a new phenomenon – it has been a key driver of many evolutions of human society throughout history: movement with the wheel; navigation with the compass; communication with the wire. The field of ‘neuroenhancement’ – using our understanding of how the brain works more directly to try to improve the way it functions – might well be the next such catalyst.

Our new research reviewing the cognitive effects of the “smart pill” modafinil has found that it can improve the performance of healthy people on cognitive tasks, meaning it can be considered the first of these “neuroenhancement agents”. But, what is also clear is that we need to radically improve the way that we analyse the effect this kind of drug has on both healthy brains and wider society.

Modafinil is a stimulant drug, licensed by the Food and Drug Administration to help people with sleep disorders stay awake. This means that its safety in humans has been confirmed in a clinical context, over a relatively long time period, and multiple doses. In these individuals, as well as many others with neuropsychiatric disease, modafinil intake has been found to improve a wide range of cognitive functions, bringing themcloser to “normal”. In sleep-deprived individuals, includingpilots and doctors, modafinil also appears to have this effect.

But, we wanted to find out what affect it had on healthy people, who were not sleep-deprived. Over the 24 studies we reviewed between 1990 and 2015, modafinil intake appeared to also be able to improve cognitive functions, in particular “higher” cognitive functions, such as problem solving and planning. This improvement was not seen every time, on every test, for every person; and, for some cognitive functions, like attention and learning and memory, many studies failed to show any difference at all.

We were even able to make a few suggestions of how it might be doing this: for instance, the effects we observed could be explained by a “top-down” effect on cognitive processing, driven by amplification of activity in the pre-frontal brain regions. Critically, in the studies we examined people taking modafinil reported a very low number of side effects, all of which were seen in equal proportions in placebo groups taking the same tests.

Read more at the independent

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