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A new study suggests so-called “smart drugs” such as modafinil (brand name Provigil) may have negative effects in healthy people.

Currently, it is claimed that one in five students have taken modafinil to boost their ability to study and improve their chances of exam success.

Dr Ahmed Dahir Mohamed, a researcher in the School of Psychology at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, performed a randomized double blind study among 64 participants. Half of the group received the drug and the other 32 were provided a placebo.

All of the participants were given a famous neuropsychological task known as the Hayling Sentence Completion Test, in which they were asked to respond both quickly and accurately. Mohamed found the drug slowed down reaction times, impaired their ability to respond in a timely manner and failed to improve their performance of the task.

The research is published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

“We looked at how the drug acted when you are required to respond accurately and in a timely manner. Our findings were completely opposite to the results we expected,” said Mohamed.

“It has been argued that modafinil might improve your performance by delaying your ability to respond. It has been suggested this ‘delay dependent improvement’ might improve cognitive performance by making people less impulsive. We found no evidence to support those claims.

“Our research showed that when a task required instant reactions, the drug just increased reaction times with no improvement to cognitive performance.”

The current study supports the findings of a previous study carried out by Mohamed and published in September 2014 in The Journal of Creative Behaviour.

The study showed that the so-called smart drug impaired the participant’s ability to respond in a creative way particularly when they were asked to respond laterally, that is, “outside the box.”

Thus the question, “Does modafinil benefit anyone?”

Mohamed’s research finds that those who weren’t particularly creative to start with were improved by the drug while those who were creative were impaired by the drug.

“Our study backs up previous research that suggests psychostimulants improve people at the lower end of the spectrum in cognition whereas they impair people who are at the optimum level of cognitive function — healthy people for example.

“It looks like modafinil is not helpful for healthy individuals and it might even impair their ability to respond and might stifle their lateral thinking, while people who have some sort of deficiency in creativity are helped by the drug.”

When Mohamed was asked if any drug can make us smarter, he said, “What I have found in my doctoral studies is that if you are already a healthy person and functioning at an optimum level, it is really difficult to improve your cognition.

“But the brain of the adolescent is still in development and you might be able to improve cognition at this stage of our development through positive interaction, healthy diet, or mindfulness.”

Source: University of Nottingham/EurekAlert