Use of the nootropic drug Modafinil, also known by its brand name Provigil, has significantly increased in the last two decades. According to one study, as America entered the new millennium, there was at least a 10-fold increase in the use of the smart drug, often for off-label purposes. The medication’s apparent capacity to improve alertness, mood, and focus (along with a marketing campaign for multiple uses by its maker) led to novel applications of what many consider a wonder drug for Cognitive enhancement. Reports by Medscape presented most of the information used in this article.

This wonder drug is viewed as a real-life 'Limitless' pill

Modafinil has been compared in the media to the fictional mind-expanding drug NZT-48 taken by Bradley Cooper in “Limitless." In the United States, modafinil is a Schedule IV controlled substance that is FDA-approved for treatment of conditions such as narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and shift work disorders. However, its off-label uses include treatment of ADHD, depression, schizophrenia, and addiction. College students, professionals, and athletes are also turning to the drug to increase alertness, improve performance, and promote cognitive enhancement.

Made in France, modafinil was designed to treat narcolepsy

Experimental medicine professor Michael Jouvet developed modafinil in the 1970s at Lafon Laboratories, a family-owned French pharmaceutical company, as a less-addictive alternative to amphetamines for the treatment of narcolepsy.

The medication was not initially envisioned as the nootropic smart drug it would become.

Jouvet, also renowned for defining REM sleep, synthesized the drug from the active metabolite of the substance adrafinil. When ingested, adrafinil breaks down in the body to produce modafinil but takes about 45 minutes to take effect. By isolating modafinil as a medication in its own right, Jouvet reduced the onset of action to 20 minutes.

Now he had developed a non-stimulant medication that could treat REM disorders such as narcolepsy and would later become known for its properties of cognitive enhancement.

Modafinil was marketed for off-label purposes

The pathway to modafinil's popularity appears to have begun with marketing. In 2001, pharmaceutical giant Cephalon acquired Lafon, taking over production of modafinil.

Cephalon then marketed modafinil for off-label conditions such as sleepiness, tiredness, decreased activity, and lack of energy. Though the company ceased off-label marketing after a $425 million DOJ settlement in 2008, the cat was out of the bag. Sales of the smart drug skyrocketed, and modafinil captured the public imagination as a drug to push the brain beyond perceived limitations. Today, modafinil is available by prescription in the United States and may be purchased as well from some online pharmacies.