, Volume 210, Issue 3, pp 317–329 | Cite as

Effects of modafinil and methylphenidate on visual attention capacity: a TVA-based study

  • Kathrin FinkeEmail author
  • Chris M. Dodds
  • Peter Bublak
  • Ralf Regenthal
  • Frank Baumann
  • Tom Manly
  • Ulrich Müller
Original Investigation



Theory of visual attention (TVA; Bundesen 1990) whole report tasks allow the independent measurement of visual perceptual processing speed and visual short-term memory (vSTM) storage capacity, unconfounded by motor speed. This study investigates how cognitive enhancing effects of psychostimulants depend on baseline performance and individual plasma levels.

Materials and methods

Eighteen healthy volunteers (aged 20–35 years) received single oral doses of either 40 mg methylphenidate, 400 mg modafinil or placebo in a counterbalanced, double-blind crossover design. A whole report of visually presented letter arrays was performed 2.5–3.5 h after drug administration, and blood samples for plasma level analysis were taken.


Methylphenidate and modafinil both enhanced perceptual processing speed in participants with low baseline (placebo) performance. These improvements correlated with subjective alertness. Furthermore, we observed differential plasma level-dependent effects of methylphenidate in lower and higher performing participants: higher plasma levels led to a greater improvement in low-performing participants and to decreasing improvement in high-performing participants. Modafinil enhanced visual short-term memory storage capacity in low-performing participants.


This is the first pharmacological investigation demonstrating the usefulness of a TVA task for high-resolution and repeated cognitive parameter estimation after cognitive-enhancing medication. Our results confirm previous findings of attentional capacity improvements in low performers and extend the baseline dependency model to methylphenidate. Plasma level-dependent effects of psychostimulants can be modelled on an inverted U-shaped dose–response relationship, which is highly relevant to predict cognitive enhancing and detrimental effects of psychostimulants in patients with cognitive deficits (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and healthy volunteers (e.g., self-medicating academics).


Dopamine ADHD Arousal Attention Behaviour Cognitive Human Perception 



We would like to thank Hermann J. Müller, Werner X. Schneider and Trevor W. Robbins for their support of this research. This study was funded by grants of the Medical Research Council (MRC) to TM and of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG; project MU 773/6-1). UM was supported by an MRC pathfinder grant.

Disclosure/Conflict of interest

U. Müller has received research grant support from Janssen-Cilag and honoraria or travel expenses from Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Janssen-Cilag, Pharmacia-Upjohn, and UCB Pharma. R. Regenthal has received research grant support from Pfizer.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathrin Finke
    • 1
    • 7
    Email author
  • Chris M. Dodds
    • 2
    • 3
  • Peter Bublak
    • 4
  • Ralf Regenthal
    • 5
  • Frank Baumann
    • 5
  • Tom Manly
    • 2
  • Ulrich Müller
    • 3
    • 6
  1. 1.Department of Psychology, Experimental PsychologyLudwig Maximilian UniversityMunichGermany
  2. 2.Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences UnitCambridgeUK
  3. 3.The Cambridge Institute of Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience, Department of Experimental PsychologyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  4. 4.Neuropsychology Unit, Neurology ClinicFriedrich Schiller UniversityJenaGermany
  5. 5.Department of Clinical PharmacologyUniversity of LeipzigLeipzigGermany
  6. 6.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  7. 7.Department Psychology, General and Experimental Psychology/Neuro-Cognitive PsychologyLudwig Maximilians University MunichMunichGermany

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