Neuropsychopharmacology (2008) 33, 1477–1502; doi:10.1038/sj.npp.1301534; published online 22 August 2007

Modafinil: A Review of Neurochemical Actions and Effects on Cognition

Michael J Minzenberg1 and Cameron S Carter1

1Imaging Research Center, Davis School of Medicine, UC-Davis Health System, University of California, Sacramento, CA, USA

Correspondence: Dr MJ Minzenberg, Imaging Research Center, Davis School of Medicine, UC-Davis Health System, University of California, 4701 X Street, Sacramento, CA 95817, USA. Tel: +1 916 734 7174; Fax: +1 916 734 8750; E-mail:

Received 1 May 2007; Revised 14 July 2007; Accepted 16 July 2007; Published online 22 August 2007.



Modafinil (2-[(Diphenylmethyl) sulfinyl] acetamide, Provigil) is an FDA-approved medication with wake-promoting properties. Pre-clinical studies of modafinil suggest a complex profile of neurochemical and behavioral effects, distinct from those of amphetamine. In addition, modafinil shows initial promise for a variety of off-label indications in psychiatry, including treatment-resistant depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and schizophrenia. Cognitive dysfunction may be a particularly important emerging treatment target for modafinil, across these and other neuropsychiatric disorders. We aimed to comprehensively review the empirical literature on neurochemical actions of modafinil, and effects on cognition in animal models, healthy adult humans, and clinical populations. We searched PubMed with the search term ‘modafinil’ and reviewed all English-language articles for neurochemical, neurophysiological, cognitive, or information-processing experimental measures. We additionally summarized the pharmacokinetic profile of modafinil and clinical efficacy in psychiatric patients. Modafinil exhibits robust effects on catecholamines, serotonin, glutamate, gamma amino-butyric acid, orexin, and histamine systems in the brain. Many of these effects may be secondary to catecholamine effects, with some selectivity for cortical over subcortical sites of action. In addition, modafinil (at well-tolerated doses) improves function in several cognitive domains, including working memory and episodic memory, and other processes dependent on prefrontal cortex and cognitive control. These effects are observed in rodents, healthy adults, and across several psychiatric disorders. Furthermore, modafinil appears to be well-tolerated, with a low rate of adverse events and a low liability to abuse. Modafinil has a number of neurochemical actions in the brain, which may be related to primary effects on catecholaminergic systems. These effects are in general advantageous for cognitive processes. Overall, modafinil is an excellent candidate agent for remediation of cognitive dysfunction in neuropsychiatric disorders.


modafinil, dopamine, norepinephrine, cognition, psychiatry



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