Despite decades of study, a full picture has yet to emerge of the cognitive effects of the classic psychostimulants and modafinil. Part of the problem is that getting rats, or indeed students, to do puzzles in laboratories may not be a reliable guide to the drugs’ effects in the wider world. Drugs have complicated effects on individuals living complicated lives. Determining that methylphenidate enhances cognition in rats by acting on their prefrontal cortex doesn’t tell you the potential impact that its effects on mood or motivation may have on human cognition.
For Malcolm Gladwell, “the thing with doping is that it allows you to train harder than you would have done otherwise.” He argues that we cannot easily call someone a cheater on the basis of having used a drug for this purpose. The equivalent, he explains, would be a student who steals an exam paper from the teacher, and then instead of going home and not studying at all, goes to a library and studies five times harder.
Frustrated by the lack of results, pharmaceutical companies have been shutting down their psychiatric drug research programmes. Traditional methods, such as synthesising new molecules and seeing what effect they have on symptoms, seem to have run their course. A shift of strategy is looming, towards research that focuses on genes and brain circuitry rather than chemicals. The shift will prolong the wait for new blockbuster drugs further, as the new systems are developed, and offers no guarantees of results.
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Like caffeine, nicotine tolerates rapidly and addiction can develop, after which the apparent performance boosts may only represent a return to baseline after withdrawal; so nicotine as a stimulant should be used judiciously, perhaps roughly as frequent as modafinil. Another problem is that nicotine has a half-life of merely 1-2 hours, making regular dosing a requirement. There is also some elevated heart-rate/blood-pressure often associated with nicotine, which may be a concern. (Possible alternatives to nicotine include cytisine, 2’-methylnicotine, GTS-21, galantamine, Varenicline, WAY-317,538, EVP-6124, and Wellbutrin, but none have emerged as clearly superior.)
But perhaps the biggest difference between Modafinil and other nootropics like Piracetam, according to Patel, is that Modafinil studies show more efficacy in young, healthy people, not just the elderly or those with cognitive deficits. That’s why it’s great for (and often prescribed to) military members who are on an intense tour, or for those who can’t get enough sleep for physiological reasons. One study, by researchers at Imperial College London, and published in Annals of Surgery, even showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning, redirecting their attention, and being less impulsive when making decisions.
Amphetamine – systematic reviews and meta-analyses report that low-dose amphetamine improved cognitive functions (e.g., inhibitory control, episodic memory, working memory, and aspects of attention) in healthy people and in individuals with ADHD. A 2014 systematic review noted that low doses of amphetamine also improved memory consolidation, in turn leading to improved recall of information in non-ADHD youth. It also improves task saliency (motivation to perform a task) and performance on tedious tasks that required a high degree of effort.