Can you use Provigil (modafinil) as a study drug? Will it give you that extra edge you need to complete your work? A recent study found modafinil more effective than methylphenidate (Ritalin) at improving wakefulness and higher brain functions (executive functions.)

Students have long used aids to help them study and write papers or complete projects. Sometimes students feel they need the extra mental energy. The most widespread study drug is clearly caffeine, whether in the form of coffee, tea, or cola drinks. Of course, many students drink caffeine drinks regularly, so come crunch time, these drinks may not have the desired impact as the body has become used to it.

One traditional study drug from decades ago was amphetamine or methamphetamine. These materials helped people stay awake, but there were problems. Dosing was often unknown and users got overstimulated. Often when the drug wore off, users felt a “crash”. These drugs are also addictive and have negative side effects. They are also illegal without a prescription and not readily available in unmixed form even with a prescription most of the time.

Adderall has found popularity as a study drug. Adderall is a widely used prescription medication for attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy. It treats some of the same conditions as Provigil and has some similar effects. Chemically, Adderall is a mixture of four dextroamphetamine salts. Each salt has a different half-life in the body, so the effect is spread out and users are less likely to experience the highs and crashes of old-fashioned street amphetamines and single component drugs. However, there are still potential side effects from this form and dosage of amphetamine.

Ritalin is likewise a stimulant employed in treatment of attention deficit disorder, and it is also used as a study drug. Many students started taking Ritalin as children, or know classmates who have used if for years and have access to it. Like caffeine, Ritalin gives more of an extra boost to those who do not take it habitually.

Provigil is available only by prescription and it is approved only for certain medical conditions. It is not ethical for a doctor to prescribe Provigil to help a student do better in school or to take only during special cases of final exam periods or the like. Nevertheless, there are reports from campus newspapers of people using Provigil for just this purpose.

Provigil (aka modafinil and armodafinil) improves function in several cognitive domains, including working memory and episodic memory, and other processes dependent on prefrontal cortex and cognitive control.

New Scientist magazine reported in Dec 2008: "A recent survey found that at some US universities, up to 25 per cent of students routinely buy Ritalin or Adderall - prescription drugs to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder - on black markets to boost memory and concentration. The stimulant Modafinil has also been touted as a mind enhancer."

The London Times had an article titled "Smart drugs for straight As" about medicines for cognitive enhancement. The Times also published an article called "Cheating students turn to smart drug for edge in exams" that looks at the questions raised by such use.

A study published at the online journal Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy claims that about 4% of older teens and emerging adults (abges 18 to 25) use study drugs. The report that between 1990 and 2000 methylphenidate use increased by a factor of 5 in the United States, and this has contributed to a culture that accepts stimulants such as Provigil.

A German study published in 2010 found both modafinil (Provigil) and methylphenidate (Ritalin) were effective in improving memory, but only modafinil increased wakefulness and executive brain performance. The effects of Provigil faded as sleep deprivation increased, even after multiple doses.

Provigil use in academia

Cambridge University's student newspaper The Varsity quoted professors as saying they have been offerred Provigil at academic meetings:

Barbara Sohakian, Professor of Neuropsychology at Cambridge, claimed that use of such drugs is also becoming more widespread in academic circles. “I have been offered modafinil on several occasions when I’ve been at conferences, without asking for it,” she said. Professor Robbins stated that he has had similar experiences.

The Varsity surveyed Cambridge students in 2009 and reported that 10% admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs to help them study. Cherwell reports Oxford undergraduates are claimed to be part of a trend toward increasing use of cognitive enhancement drugs.

The addiction website The Fix has an article about smart drugs in general, called Do Rx "Smart Pills" Really Make You Smarter?

 

Related: Can Provigil help you at work?

Writing in the Times of London, Dr. Thomas Stuttford warns against excessive use of Provigil for studying as "the brain, like any other organ, needs periods of rest in between activity if it is to give its best performance."