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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 8:28 EDT

Habit-Forming Effects Of Popular ‘Smart Drug’

March 18, 2009

A small government study suggests that the narcolepsy drug modafinil “” a so-called “smart drug” increasingly being used to enhance cognitive abilities “” may be more addictive than doctors thought, the Associated Press reported.

A study involving 10 healthy men found that the prescription drug Provigil (generic name: Modafinil) caused changes in the brain’s pleasure center, very much like potentially habit-forming classic stimulants.

College students often use Modafinil as an illegal study aid to increase their academic endurance.

Experts believe the new study may end the myth that the drug is safe for healthy people.

Provigil hit the market in 1999 as a treatment for excessive sleepiness for narcoleptics. Cephalon, the company’s flagship product, reached sales of over $1 billion in 2008.

An Air Force study that found the drug improved the performance of sleep-deprived fighter pilots resulted in Modafinil’s reputation as a brain enhancer. It quickly caught on with college students, who buy and sell it illegally to stay alert while studying.

A report in the journal Nature quoted several scientists who believe that healthy people should have the right to boost their brains with pills like Provigil.

However, other experts promoted caution.

“The new study goes to show that we need a little caution and a little humility when we’re messing around with our brain chemistry,” said brain scientist Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the contributors to the commentary.

Farah noted that even after all the years of Provogil being on the market, doctors are still learning things about it that are relevant to its safety.

The study involved men between 23 and 46 years old who received either a dummy pill or Modafinil. PET scans showed that the drug increased dopamine, the brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitters.

Studies in mice and monkeys suggest that Modafinil, which was once thought to be safer than conventional stimulants because it was believed that it did not engage the brain’s dopamine system, does indeed show a link with addiction.

The researchers claim to have recorded evidence that a typical dose of modafinil affects dopamine in the brain as much as a dose of Ritalin, a controlled substance with known dependence capabilities.

However, Modafinil acts slowly when swallowed and is difficult to inject, making it less likely to be abused, according to Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who led the study with a Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist..

It often draws higher street prices than Ritalin, but Volkow said that might change when generics become available in 2012.

Side effects from Modafinil include severe rashes and other issues such as headache, nausea and anxiety. Cephalon doesn’t support the drug’s use as a cognitive enhancer.

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