Adderall and modafinil are central nervous system stimulant medications (psychostimulants). Both of these drugs have similar properties and similar applications. Both drugs are listed as controlled substances by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.
Adderall comes in an immediate-release form (Adderall IR) and an extended-release form (Adderall XR). The immediate-release form of the drug lasts for about 4–6 hours; the extended-release form typically lasts for about 12 hours.
Adderall is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance. It is therefore considered to have a significant risk for abuse and the development of physical dependence.
Adderall is believed to exert its effects by both blocking the reuptake of the excitatory neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, and by actually increasing the intracellular concentration of these neurotransmitters by releasing them from storage units in neurons. Modafinil is also believed to affect several different neurotransmitters, including excitatory neurotransmitters like dopamine and glutamate (increasing their availability) and decreasing the availability of inhibitory neurotransmitters like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Although the drugs have approved uses, the prescription of these drugs is often made according to uses that they are not formally approved to address. This is true for many different types of medications.
Off-label uses for Adderall are designed to take advantage of it stimulant effects. Adderall may be used for weight control, to increase alertness, and to address issues with obesity.
Modafinil is also prescribed to address conditions that its stimulant effects may treat, including treating fatigue and lethargy in individuals with numerous neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, in cancer patients, and even the fatigue that occurs in patients with clinical depression.
The decision whether to prescribe Adderall or modafinil for ADHD is entirely dependent on the perceptions of the physician, the needs of the patient, and the history of the patient.
Modafinil is a much milder stimulant than Adderall, and its mild stimulant properties allow for using it in varied situations to address lethargy and sleepiness without the potential for inducing anxiety, jitteriness, irritability, or agitation. Adderall is a more powerful stimulant, and its use must be tempered.
Modafinil is not approved for the treatment of ADHD; however, it may be prescribed off-label for this use. At the time of this writing, there are some small controlled studies that suggest that modafinil is a useful treatment for ADHD. Research studies have indicated that modafinil:
It should be noted that modafinil is not an approved medication for ADHD. Insurance companies may not approve its use for this purpose and therefore may not pay for the medication when it is prescribed for this purpose.
Stimulant abuse is a serious problem in the United States. The abuse of stimulants has received quite a bit of publicity particularly regarding the abuse of methamphetamine (meth), cocaine, and medications designed to treat ADHD like methylphenidate (e.g., Ritalin and Concerta) and Adderall. Over-the-counter stimulants may be abused in conjunction with other drugs to assist in weight loss, to produce euphoria, and for other reasons. Long-term stimulant abuse can have significant ramifications on physical and emotional health.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducts yearly surveys and releases yearly estimates on the use and abuse of numerous prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, and illicit drugs. According to the latest available data from SAMHSA:
The abuse potential of these two medications is considered to be quite different. Adderall is known to be a significant potential drug of abuse. Motivation for abusing Adderall typically consists of trying to capitalize on it stimulant properties as a form of a “cognitive enhancer,” abusing it to lose weight, or abusing it with other drugs for its psychoactive effects. Modafinil abuse appears to be mostly associated with attempting to use its stimulant properties as a form of cognitive enhancer.
The term cognitive enhancer refers to the notion that a particular substance makes an individual smarter; hence, the term smart drug is often used to describe these drugs. However, there are no drugs that make people smarter. Stimulants like caffeine, Adderall, and modafinil can increase the ability of a person to pay attention and concentrate; however, when taken in moderate to large amounts, they may actually inhibit this ability.
The perception that Adderall and modafinil are smart drugs is a misperception, even though in small doses, they may help a person with their ability to pay attention. The long-term effects of these drugs regarding their ability to increase a person’s academic performance is highly overstated. The majority of individuals who abuse drugs like Adderall actually have lower academic achievement than individuals who do not use these drugs as cognitive enhancers.Numerous research studies documented the abuse potential of Adderall, particularly in high school students and college students, younger individuals in high-performance occupations, and individuals attempting to lose weight (mostly females). Adderall has been demonstrated to be a significant drug of abuse, is most often abused in conjunction with other drugs like alcohol, and has a significant potential to produce physical dependence by producing tolerance rapidly in chronic users.
The abuse potential of modafinil is far lower than it is for Adderall. This is not to say that modafinil cannot be abused, but it is less likely to be a potential drug of abuse. Research studies indicate that there is very little evidence that modafinil use produces significant tolerance, that withdrawal symptoms associated with modafinil are rare, and there only a few case studies in the literature that have identified evidence of dependence on modafinil. The drug does not appear to produce the significant euphoria that is often associated with other stimulants, and in the few case studies where the development of physical dependence was suspected, the symptoms of withdrawal were primarily emotional such as apathy, lethargy, and cravings.
Thus, the research data and the survey data (SAMHSA) suggests that both drugs do have a potential for abuse, but the potential for abuse is far higher for Adderall than it is for modafinil.
Adderall and modafinil are central nervous system stimulant medications with similar mechanisms of action and practical applications, but different potentials for abuse. Adderall is considered to be a much more serious potential drug of abuse than modafinil. However, there are case studies that suggest that modafinil can be a potential drug of abuse, particularly when it is used in high amounts.