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Can one dose of narcolepsy drug curb impulse to overeat? Release makes unsubstantiated leap

Drug for narcolepsy could help food addicts lose weight

Our Review Summary

impulse. impulse control, rewardardThis release reports on the results of a small study comparing two drugs used to treat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders with a placebo in gauging whether the drugs heighten impulse control, and suggests these results could be applied to the general population. The release claims that after a single dose, one of the drugs, Modafinil, reduced impulsive behavior in the study’s 60 normal weight males who volunteered for the trial. The release, however, neglects to quantify the drug’s success in curbing impulsive eating. And it unjustifiably claims the drug would “have an even bigger effect on food addicts,” even though the study did not include people with excess weight or obesity.  Nor does it mention any possible harms or the study’s funding sources.


Why This Matters

Obesity rates in the U.S. have steadily climbed during recent decades, and more than one-third (36.5%) of adults over age 20 have obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Those searching for a magic bullet to curb obesity would welcome the introduction of a single pill if it were substantially effective, but that moment has not yet arrived.


Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There was no mention of the cost of Modafinil. According to GoodRx, a supply of 30 tablets containing 200 mg ranged from $86 at Safeway to $141 at Target on the day of our web search.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The release is filled with general statements about the benefits of Modafinil in reducing impulse eating but provides no numerical data to back up the claims. It uses statements such as “We found Modafinil . . . did reduce people’s impulsive behavior,” and “Modafinil was found to have an effect on impulsivity in healthy individuals.”

The study was based on just a single dose given to healthy volunteers who were followed up with psychological testing. The release does not provide any explanation of what the test measured or revealed, only that Modafinal “significantly reduced level of impulsiveness.”

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Nowhere in the release is there any mention of possible harms from taking Modafinil, although a brief web search suggest there are numerous potential side effects associated with the drug including anxiety, backache, sleeping problems and potential heart complications.

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

While this was a controlled study comparing two experimental groups, one each taking a separate drug, and a third receiving a placebo, it used a very small number of participants — only 20 per group.  Moreover, the release emphasizes the possible usefulness of one of the drugs — Modafinil — as curbing the impulsivity of its users and makes the leap to suggesting the drug is effective in helping obese patients curb their eating. But a more effective indicator would have been to use actual obese patients in the study rather than young healthy individuals if the key argument, as indicated in the news release, was to find ways to help obese people.

Based on a single dose and a positive result on one of several psychological tests, the study yielded no evidence relating to compulsive eating or impulse control in the real world.

There’s a lot of missing context here about the study that raise some basic questions. What was the length of the trial? What dosages were volunteers given? How was reduced impulsivity measured?

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Not Satisfactory

We rated this category “not satisfactory” since the headline and text of the release refers to “food addicts.” There is no medical diagnosis known as food addiction.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The release makes no mention of who funded this study, nor does it mention any potential or possible conflicts of interest on the part of the researchers.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

There is no mention of alternatives to the use of the narcolepsy drugs studied as a means of weight control. The release could have acknowledged there are numerous appetite-control drugs, countless diets and exercise strategies available for to help change eating patterns.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The release makes clear that modafinil is already on the market and widely available around the world.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The release suggests that the researchers’ “initial tests” back up the theory that Modafinil can aid impulsive eaters as it has shown to be effective in reducing impulsiveness in alcohol dependence, schizophrenia and ADHD. But the present study doesn’t do that. Nor is it novel. There have been previous studies observing Modafinil’s effect on food intake. For example, here.

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?


We’ll give the release the benefit of the doubt here since we’ve already addressed some language issues elsewhere in the review. However, the general premise of the release — that a single dose of a drug might curb obesity — is stretching credulity.

Total Score: 2 of 10 Satisfactory


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