A drug that can improve your productivity, creativity, and mental focus without any physical side effects? It seems too good to be true. Well, according to a new study, it is. These “smart drugs” may give you a brain boost, but this comes with long-term consequences.

"Smart drugs" is an umbrella term for drugs that help improve concentration and alertness. Natural concentration enhancers such as fish oil or the ever-popular caffeine can lead to better focus. Stimulant enhancers like Ritalin, Nuvigil, and Provigil have even more intense results, but researchers are finding this comes with more extreme long-term consequences. Their ability to improve mental functions is real, but according to a new study, when used by young adults, the drugs have been found to decrease the brain’s plasticity. This can lead to troubles completing activities such as task switching, future planning, and adaptive flexible behavior.

Stimulants such as Ritalin are used to treat ADHD. The methylphenidate works by increasing the number of neurotransmitters in the nervous system. It is more potent than caffeine but less potent than amphetamines, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. When used correctly, the drug does help users. It’s when the drug is abused that trouble sets in.

"Unless it's been prescribed by a doctor, you shouldn't be taking it, at the least, it causes restlessness, anxiety, speeds up your heart rate and can cause headaches," Dr. Steven Lipsius, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, explained in The GW Hatchett. These are just the immediate side effects. The long-term effects, which researchers are only beginning to understand, are even more unsettling.

Results from the study show that along with brain developmental problems, smart drugs can also cause individuals to push themselves beyond their optimal limits. This can cause an impairment in functions that the individual is in fact trying to improve. The study also found that these drugs can have a long-term negative effect on learning and memory circuits. In animal studies, the brains of young rats were found to be particularly sensitive to methylphenidate and resulted in an inability to switch between tasks and affected their memory.

These stimulant smart drugs are becoming increasingly popular among students who are cramming for exams. “Once you study with Adderall, studying under normal circumstances by comparison (is harder to do), Mike* a senior at George Washington University explained to The GW Hatchett.

Teenage brains are more vulnerable than older brains because they are still growing, Neuroscience reported. The frontal lobes are the last area of the brain to mature, and this is the area that is affected by abuse of the stimulant Smart Drug use. Surprisingly, brains do not finish developing until a person is in their early twenties. This is why young adults typically have poor decision-making skills and increased impulsive behavior.  

 

Source: Urban KR, Gao W. Performance enhancement at the cost of potential brain plasticity: neural ramifications of nootropic drugs in the healthy developing brain. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience. 2014.