How Smart Is It to Take Smart Drugs?

This is an article by Stacey J. Miller. I offer it with the author’s permission for informational purposes.


The Myth of Brain Power

If you hear something often enough, you may start to believe it. Most of us have come to believe the common myth that we use only ten percent of our brains. The truth, according to Medical News Today, is that “fMRI scans show that even simple activities require almost all of the brain to be active.”

However, Hollywood still enjoys imagining what would happen if people could use more of their brain power. In the 2011 action-thriller “Limitless,” a writer takes an experimental (and fictional) pill called NZT that allows him to use one hundred percent of his brain. He evolves into a superman and is targeted by assassins.

A 2014 movie, “Lucy” — which had a female protagonist — also suggests that taking a mind-enhancing drug can give someone superpowers. The movie is said to delve “deep into the concept of the untapped powers of the human brain.”

Using Smart Drugs to Increase Brainpower

The idea for both movies probably came from real life. People do use smart drugs, which are formally called pharmacological cognitive enhancement (PCE) substances, to increase their brainpower.

There is an upward trend of people — mostly students and young professionals — who are using brain boosters to increase their memory or improve their concentration. These would-be super humans sometimes ingest a sleep disorder medication called Modafinil or illegal stimulants such as cocaine to temporarily enhance their cognition.

Nootropics, which are nonprescription natural supplements and herbs such as ginseng that can easily be found in supermarkets or online, also may be used as study aids. Unfortunately, the government does not control these substances, and their side effects are unknown.

More commonly, though, people are using Adderall (which is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) or Ritalin (methylphenidate) to enhance their cognitive performance. These are prescription drugs that may be used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

They should be used only under medical supervision, because they can produce side effects such as stomach pain, increased blood pressure and heart rate, dizziness, insomnia, and headaches. In fact, some doctors consider medication to be a last resort in managing ADHD, because of the potential side effects and the long-term consequences they may have on brain development.

The Paradox of Smart Drugs

Also, ironically, smart drugs may not actually make people who use them any smarter. According to Time, a University of Pennsylvania study found, “Students who took Adderall didn’t actually perform better on tests of cognitive function — they only thought they did.”

Previous research has found that smart drugs may enhance cognitive skills for some people and not others. Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist who blogs for Healthland, reports that “those who have the least ability in a particular area are likely to see the greatest drug-related improvement.” The smartest people, according to Szalavitz, may actually perform more poorly after using stimulants.

Unfortunately, smart drugs can produce euphoria. That can lead to abuse. Most prescription smart drugs are controlled substances, but some people without ADHD are taking them illegally. When the medication is crushed and then snorted or injected, it can produce a high that is similar to cocaine.

Taking a dangerous drug to enhance cognition probably is not such a smart move. Instead, to enhance test scores or job performance, try taking a nap, eating right, and getting enough exercise.

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