Modafinil: What you need to know.

Modafinil started out life called Adrafinil and was developed in the 70s by Michel Jouvet of Lafon Labs in France and released for sale in 1986 to treat sleep disorders like Narcolepsy. Unlike speed (which was the drug of choice for treating sleep disorders, used to keep truckies awake and to help advertising executives to ‘be creative’), Adrafinil did not have side effects. Like thinking your heart is going to explode, convincing yourself that everyone is going to mars except you or rocking in a corner for a few hours. Best of all (though dealers might disagree), it wasn’t addictive.


But this wonder drug had one small drawback. Adrafinil had to be converted by the body into a new substance before it could work… and this took hours. Not much use for sleep disorder sufferers who wanted to remain awake at work or while driving, not at 3am in the morning.

So the boffins decided to make Adrafinil into its metabolite. They called this new drug Modafinil, because one completely meaningless and hard to pronounce name, deserves another. Luckily common sense prevailed and someone (yes marketing I’m talking to you) thought it will be easier for everyone if we call it something completely different in every country. So Modafinil is called Provigil in parts of Europe and Asia, Modavigil in Australia, Modiodal in France, Modalert, Modapro, Modvigil in India, Modasomil in Switzerland and SpierX in Malaysia.

The last one’s my favourite because it’s almost Spider X and who doesn’t want to take a drug called Spider X?


Anyway, not only did this new drug start working quicker, but it was also more powerful, did not keep you awake at night and put less of a strain on your liver. We could all do with less strain on our livers, right? I can tell you mine resembles a truffle before it’s been dug up by the pig. But the quality that made it a global bestseller, was that it also worked in healthy people.

Since then Modafinil has been further refined and the chemistry has got better. So now you have derivative drugs like Armodafinil and Nuvigil on the market. They deliver the same results, but even more powerfully. On a side note, the US pharma Cephalon that created Nuvigil tried to convince the FDA that it’s perfect for treating jet lag. They were turned down, probably because nobody ever turned up at the emergency department with a life threatening case of jet lag.

Who doesn’t love a hyper alert supersoldier?

So it’s medical uses are for narcolepsy, shift work, sleep disorder and sleep apnea. But it’s also been used by the US military to keep it’s helicopter pilots awake. Now I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I’m pretty sure it’s really being used as part of a black budget operation to create neutered cyborg war machines out of orphans. I for one welcome our new terrifying, yet sexually ambiguous overlords!

Also, because there’s no better place for powerful stimulants than a child’s body, it’s been used to treat children with ADHD. But this is still in the works, because when they gave it to the little tykes, their skin started separating from their body. It’s called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome,- WARNING: don’t click on that link if you are eating Christmas pudding or lamingtons.

The anti-doping agency has also banned it as a performance enhancer because, well it is a performance enhancer. Personally I think we should have two Olympics, natural and anything goes. The sexually ambiguous cyborg war machines would totally clean up.

There’s a few other experiments happening, for example how it can be used for treatment resistant depression. It also has potential applications in treating neurodegenerative diseases like parkinson’s, fibromyalgia, multiple-sclerosis and watching reality television.

But by far the biggest use for this class of drugs is students and working professionals. Millions of people worldwide are using these drugs to get an edge, work longer hours, be more productive, strengthen their resolve to keep doing utterly meaningless work to prop up a system that is quickly destroying the planet. Wait sorry did I say that out loud?

In the middle is magic ju-ju

Do you even science bro? Well we’re about to find out. In broad terms nootropics all work in one of two ways. They either stimulate the production of a chemical or they reduce the reabsorption of it (reuptake inhibitors). Modafinil is an inhibitor that targets dopamine transporters. These molecules reabsorb dopamine in the brain. So by blocking the production of these molecules, we increase the amount of dopamine in the brain.

Dopamine is released whenever we experience something ‘good’, making us more interested in doing it again and more likely to remember the action that led to ‘good’. One of the ways it does this is by speeding up communication between neurons. It may also help the thalamus filter information that gets to the cortex and in so doing increase our ability to focus. There’s a whole bunch of other possible effects on other brain regions and other neurotransmitters like glutamate, norepinephrine, GABA, orexins and serotonin.

There is also good evidence to suggest that it’s neuroprotective, somehow playing a role in mopping up free radicals in the brain. But the bottom line is that scientists are not really sure how Modafinil works, just that it does. So in computing terms this is like black box testing. Put stuff in one end, get outcome at the other. In the middle is magic ju-ju. This doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. For most of us, much of the technology that surrounds us is magic ju-ju, but we still use it.

Some studies show that large doses can ‘light up’ areas of the brain associated with addiction and long term use may screw around with our sleep architecture making us sleep lighter. There is also the possibility that long term use may lead to normalisation, where your brain goes “hey looks like you’ve outsourced dopamine production. Sweet, I’ll just switch off my production then.” In which case you’re taking a drug to feel normal, not enhance your ability. But these are small and early studies and people who use it sporadically and take regular breaks from it don’t seem to have these downsides.

Side effects include buying a gold plated quadcopter

Headache is the most common side effect at about 3 in 10 people, possibly resulting from an inflammatory reaction in the brain from increase histamine activity. But a lot of people report this is resolved by lowering the dose or taking it with Choline. Anxiety and nausea are the next most common side effects at around 1 in 10 people.

After that, other effects become pretty rare and include spending thousands of dollars on Aliexpress at 3am, buying a gold plated quadcopter, climbing into the lion’s cage at the zoo because you are an idiot… and hay fever.

Apart from the obvious advice of stop taking it if it doesn’t agree with you, the other thing to remember is that dose makes the poison. If you feel agitated, your heart’s pounding, you feel anxious etc, then lower your dosage and see what happens. Also remember, if you’re searching for it online, the most common search terms are Modafinil, Provigil or Modalert.