Modafinil is a wake-promoting agent that is pharmacologically different from other stimulants. It has been investigated in healthy volunteers, and in individuals with clinical disorders associated with excessive sleepiness, fatigue, impaired cognition and other symptoms. This review examines the use of modafinil in clinical practice based on the results of randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials available in the English language in the MEDLINE database.
In sleep-deprived individuals, modafinil improves mood, fatigue, sleepiness and cognition to a similar extent as caffeine but has a longer duration of action. Evidence for improved cognition in non-sleep-deprived healthy volunteers is controversial. Modafinil improves excessive sleepiness and illness severity in all three disorders for which it has been approved by the US FDA, i.e. narcolepsy, shift-work sleep disorder and obstructive sleep apnoea with residual excessive sleepiness despite optimal use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). However, its effects on safety on the job and on morbidities associated with these disorders have not been ascertained.
Continued use of CPAP in obstructive sleep apnoea is essential. Modafinil does not benefit cataplexy. In very small, short-term trials, modafinil improved excessive sleepiness in patients with myotonic dystrophy. It was efficacious in fairly large studies of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adolescents, and was as efficacious as methylphenidate in a small trial, but has not been approved by the FDA, in part because of its serious dermatological toxicity. In a trial of 21 non-concurrent subjects, with 2-week treatment periods, modafinil was as effective as dexamfetamine in adult ADHD. Modafinil was helpful for depressive symptoms in bipolar disorder in a trial that excluded patients with stimulant-induced mania.
A single dose of modafinil may hasten recovery from general anaesthesia after day surgery. A single dose of modafinil improved the ability of emergency room physicians to attend didactic lectures after a night shift, but did not improve their ability to drive home and caused sleep disturbances subsequently. Modafinil had a substantial placebo effect on outcomes such as fatigue, excessive sleepiness and depression in patients with traumatic brain injury, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, post-polio fatigue and multiple sclerosis; however, it did not provide any benefit greater than placebo.
Trials of modafinil for excessive sleepiness in Parkinson's disease, cocaine addiction and cognition in chronic fatigue syndrome provided inconsistent results; all studies had extremely small sample sizes. Modafinil cannot be recommended for these conditions until definitive data become available. Modafinil induces and inhibits several cytochrome P450 isoenzymes and has the potential for interacting with drugs from all classes.
The modafinil dose should be reduced in the elderly and in patients with hepatic disease. Caution is needed in patients with severe renal insufficiency because of substantial increases in levels of modafinil acid. Common adverse events with modafinil include insomnia, headache, nausea, nervousness and hypertension. Decreased appetite, weight loss and serious dermatological have been reported with greater frequency in children and adolescents, probably due to the higher doses (based on bodyweight) used. Modafinil may have some abuse/addictive potential although no cases have been reported to date.