According to results from a new study in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, methylphenidate and modafinil, drugs typically used in the treatment of ADHD and narcolepsy, respectively, have been shown to improve the cognitive abilities of chess players already performing at a high level. 

To examine any potential cognitive improvement, researchers from the University of Mainz, Germany, conducted a crossover study of modafinil, methylphenidate, caffeine and placebo. Over four days, a total of 39 players were administered one of the respective drugs or placebo, then took part in a rapid, 15 minute game against a chess program.

Results showed that modafinil, methylphenidate and caffeine all increased the time it took a player to make a move, which resulted in more games being lost due to time running out. However, when games lost due to time were disregarded, the analysis showed that modafinil and methylphenidate significantly improved the players’ performance. Caffeine showed some, but not significant, improvement.  

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“These differences can be pretty significant in a competitive sport or game. But this work also allows us to put a figure on the way that the use of these drugs can affect the way we think in a range of everyday intellectual activities, such as studying for an exam,” said professor Klaus Lieb, lead author of the study.

The findings support the notion that pharmaceutical intervention can enhance the performance of cognitive functions. Indeed, in 2014 The World Chess Federation introduced an anti-doping code. The researchers stressed that the use of these drugs in the study was off-label, and that there is little data available on the benefits for such uses versus risks or side effects.