Modafinil is a unique wake-promoting agent. Preclinical studies indicate a mechanism of action which is distinct from that of amphetamine or methylphenidate. To compare the pharmacodynamic profiles of modafinil, methylphenidate, and placebo in humans, a double-blind Latin square crossover study was conducted in 24 male volunteers with a history of polysubstance abuse that included the stimulant cocaine. Each subject was given single oral doses of methylphenidate (45 mg or 90 mg), modafinil (200 mg, 400 mg or 800 mg) and placebo. Measures of subjective, behavioural, and physiological responses were evaluated at fixed intervals during 72 h after each dosing occasion. Subjects discriminated both modafinil and methylphenidate from placebo. Subjects liked the effects of both drugs. However, modafinil differed from methylphenidate in its lack of a significant response on the Amphetamine Scale of the Addiction Research Center Inventory. The profile of physiological effects for modafinil differed from methylphenidate in that it showed greater inhibition of observed and reported sleep, less facilitation of orthostatic tachycardia and less reduction of caloric intake. These findings are consistent with preclinical pharmacological data suggesting that modafinil is not an amphetamine-like agent.