There are a number of pills on the market today that promise cognitive enhancements like a better memory or sharper focus, but a new study out of the University of Nottingham's Malaysia campus suggests that some of these claims might be dubious. In fact, for at least one common "smart" pill, the drug could actually make you dumber, reports MedicalXpress.
The drug Modafinil, or Provigil as it is commonly sold in the U.S., has become a popular cognitive enhancement, especially among university students and corporate executives in the United Kingdom. But the new research has shown that the drug actually seems to impair cognitive function among healthy individuals.
"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," explained Dr. Ahmed Dahir Mohamed, who led the study.
Modafinil has been around for a while. Though it is principally approved for use in the U.S. for treatment of wakefulness disorders such as narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder and excessive daytime sleepiness, it has also been used to treat other conditions as far ranging as depression, opiate and cocaine dependence, ADHD, Parkinson's disease and even schizophrenia. It was first used as a cognitive enhancement on a widespread scale in the 1980s by students in France, and is believed to improve some aspects of working memory, such as digit span, digit manipulation and pattern recognition memory.
For the new study, Dr. Mohamed gave 32 participants the drug and 32 patients a placebo. The participants were then given the Hayling Sentence Completion Test, a famous psychological evaluation that measures response initiation and response suppression. Those who took the drug showed an impaired response to the test.
"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," said Mohamed.
The finding backs up a previous study, also performed by Mohamed, which found that Modafinil impaired participants' ability to respond in a creative way, particularly when they were asked to respond laterally, or "outside the box."
Mohamed's research did find that the drug seemed to help some people, but only if those people were already low-performing individuals. In other words, if you're already not very smart, the drug might offer some benefit. But for everyone else, it just brings you down.
After all of his research, Mohamed believes there is reason to be skeptical of pharmaceuticals that promise cognitive enhancements.
"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," he said.
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