Modafinil, also known as Provigil, was originally synthesised in the 1970s in France and approved for use by the U.S.’s FDA as a treatment for sleep disorders such as narcolepsy in 1998. It is currently classed as a Class IV controlled substance in the U.S. for fears that it may have addictive properties, though it is legal for distribution in other countries, including the United Kingdom.
As a treatment for sleep disorders, such as Narcolepsy, modafinil appears to function as a selective dopamine reuptake inhibitor, although the exact mechanism of how it works remain unclear. It is not a total cure for these disorders, instead being prescribed as a management treatment for daytime sleepiness.
Known as a ‘smart drug’ reported to promote as a cognitive enhancer, improving concentration and mental efficiency, however studies are still ongoing as to its effectiveness in this field. The 2014 NHS article ‘'Smart drug' modafinil may not make you brainier’ notes that much of the drug’s effect may have been exaggerated by the media and claims that there was too much focus on one study. Despite this, praise for modafinil floods in, with first-hand accounts of its effectiveness. A 2014 survey by student website The Tab showed that one in five students admit to using modafinil as a study drug.
The most popular drug in the world, caffeine works as a stimulant for the central nervous system, blocking adenosine, one of the critical molecules for causing sleepiness. This induces a feeling of wakefulness by blocking the adenosine from reaching the adenosine receptors in the brain. This is laid out particularly well by the video below:
Caffeine has several effects on the body, including:
These effects, particularly the dopamine production, have a positive effect on both mental lucidity and emotional wellbeing, as dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and well-being.
Despite their differences in consumption and popularity, modafinil and caffeine are incredibly similar products in terms of effect. In fact, some users recommend they best be taken together, though a doctor should always be consulted before deciding if this course is right for you. They are similar enough in their effect in staving off sleep and increasing concentration, as the results of this 2004 study show, though modafinil was found to be more effective over sustained periods.
Caffeine, as a stimulant that merely blocks adenosine receptors, gives the feeling that it is merely ‘staving off’ sleep. The temporary energy given by caffeine feels like it is just that; temporary. Modafinil, on the other hand, appears to remove the need for sleep entirely. Whilst under the effects of the drug, users have said that they felt like they could keep going indefinitely with no dip in their energy or concentration.
Yet the praise for modafinil is not universal, due in part to the different effects in can have on individuals. This article, published in 2016, claims that a combination of regular short sleep periods and doses of caffeine can be just as effective, depending on the individual.
Questions remain about modafinil and studies continue to be ongoing. For now, it appears to be an effective alternative to regular caffeine intake, or as an enhancement to caffeine in certain individuals, and as a treatment for sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. Consult your doctor to see if modafinil is right for you.
Page last reviewed: July 2018
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