The media is full of stories about the amazing properties of smart drugs. But you could be putting your brain at risk, warns David Cox
Modafinil has emerged as the crown prince of smart drugs, that seductive group of pharmaceutical friends that promise enhanced memory, motivation, and an unrelenting ability to focus, all for hours at a time.
In the absence of long-term data, the media, particularly the student media, has tended to be relaxed about potential side-effects. The Oxford Tab, for example, simply shrugs: Who cares?
The novelist MJ Hyland, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, wrote a paean to the drug in the Guardian recently – understandably, for her, any potential side-effects are worth the risk given the benefits she's experienced.
But should stressed students, tempted by a quick fix, be worried about what modafinil could be doing their brains in the long term?
Professor Barbara Sahakian, at the University of Cambridge, has been researching modafinil as a possible clinical treatment for the cognitive problems of patients with psychosis. She's fascinated by healthy people taking these drugs and has co-authored a recent book on the subject.
"Some people just want the competitive edge – they want to do better at exams so they can get into a better university or get a better degree. And there's another group of people who want to function the best they can all the time. But people have also told me that they've used these drugs to help them do tasks that they've found not very interesting, or things they've been putting off."