While today Modafinil is primarily known as a study aid and cognitive enhancer, it was originally developed to target a specific sleep disorder, narcolepsy, which causes its sufferers to drop off to sleep at any time, and when awake to be excessively drowsy. In the late 1970’s in France, neurophysiology professor Michel Jouvet at Lafon Laboratories developed a drug called Adrafinal to help those people stay awake during daytime. Lafon Laboratories later developed a different version which was metabolised more easily and was less likely to cause liver damage, called Modafinil.
Before then, amphetamines had been the drug of choice for such conditions, and also for people who, while not suffering from narcolepsy or associated sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnoea or shift work sleep disorder, wanted or needed to stay awake, including students, long-distance drivers, and air force pilots.
However, amphetamines have some serious side-effects that made it less desirable than Modafinil. They are extremely addictive, can cause anxiety, and interfere with falling asleep at night. Modafinil has none of those side-effects. It was approved as a treatment for narcolepsy in France in 1994, and in 1998 in the United States, with the FDA approving its use for sleep apnoea and shift work sleep disorder in 2003.
The American pharmaceutical company Cephalon leased the rights to Modafinil from Lafon in 1993. When the original patent for Modafinil expired in 2007, Cephalon got it extended, but from 2012 on, it has been legal to produce generic versions of Modafinil.
Even before it was approved for use in France, the French Air Force was experimenting with its effectiveness in the Gulf War in 1991. By the time of the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, it had become the drug of choice for fighter pilots. Many studies have concluded that it is an effective way to ensure wakefulness in military personnel. It is routinely given to fighter pilots, paratroopers, and naval personnel in the armed forces of countries including the United States, France, United Kingdom, India, and Canada. It is seen as safer than amphetamines, which were considered a contributing factor in the friendly-fire death incident in Afghanistan in 2004, when American fighter pilots who had taken amphetamines dropped a bomb on Canadian troops, killing four of them.
A Canadian study found that Modafinil could increase endurance by 30% in athletes, and it became popular to use in the early 2000’s to improve performance. Athletes such as the American baseball player Barry Bonds and several American track and field champions, including 2003 100-metres world champion Kelli White were found to have used them. Modafinil was banned for use by the World Anti-Doping Agency as a performance-enhancing drug just before the 2004 Summer Olympics, and remains on the banned list today. However, many non-competitive athletes continue to use them to make it possible to extend training sessions beyond what would otherwise be possible: maybe they can help you!
Recent scientific studies:
In a 2015 study, Dr Ruairidh Battleday of the University of Oxford, and Dr Anna-Katharine Brem of Harvard Medical School, after reviewing twenty-four studies conducted from 1990–2014, concluded that the evidence clearly shows that Modafinil is a cognitive enhancer with negligible side-effects, and that it can be truly called the first real “smart drug”. In fact, they found that the benefits of using Modafinil increased along with the length and complexity of the tasks being performed.