Under the Hood

'Smart Drugs' Used To Enhance Disordered Brain Function, Memory May Also Benefit Healthy People

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Modafinil, a popular smart drug among students, may indeed improve cognitive skills needed to complete complex tasks. Pixabay, Public Domain

Several athletes use performance-enhancing drugs (PED) to enhance their physical abilities, while some academics use so-called "smart drugs" to boost their mental performance. Typically, these drugs, also known as "nootropics," are used to treat people with cognitive impairments such Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder (ADHD), and traumatic brain injury, among others. However, what exactly do these drugs do to the healthy brain?

In Brit Lab's latest video, “What Are Smart Drugs?” science journalist Alok Jha explores whether smart drugs actually make you smarter, and if there are any risks or benefits associated with these popular nootropics.

On the Internet, there have been anecdotal cases where students will write about their experience with these drugs. For example, Jha refers to one student who wrote: “I went from a C average student to an A plus. I wrote 2,000 words in an hour and a half. My senses are sharper. My work is much faster now.”

These claims are only based on personal experiences, but are there any validity to them?

A 2015 study conducted by the Harvard Medical School and the University of Oxford found modafinil, a popular smart drug among students, did indeed improve cognitive skills that involved complex tasks, excluding memory function. Modafinil was developed for specific medical disorders such as narcolepsy, ADHD, and other similar cognitive conditions. However, its off-label use is for cognitive enhancement among those with healthy brains.

Dr. Mitul Mehta, a neuropsychologist from King’s College in the UK, who studies the different effect smart drugs have on the brain, explains just how they may influence people with healthy cognitive function. Mehta suggests it may enhance information flow in certain brain systems, stabilizing neural activity. He believes psychostimulants may work in the frontal lobe of the brain, which controls important cognitive skills such as emotional expression, problem solving, memory, language, judgment, and sexual behavior. Another way these drugs may work is by enhancing the neuronal noise in the brain, or the signal-to-noise ratio, which allows the activity between neuronal networks to be processed more clearly without fluctuation.

Dr. Anders Sandberg, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, studies smart drugs, and is sometimes under the influence. Jha asks Sandberg about his experience when taking these drugs, and about the possible risks users face. According to Sandberg, these stimulants tend to raise blood pressure while helping you easily store knowledge, but they might make the brain more obsessive about acquiring new knowledge.

"You need to figure out the right drug for the right task" cautions Sandberg, in the video.

The usage of smart drugs in the world of academia is also linked to peer pressure. Professor Barbara Sahakian of the University of Cambridge has observed some student groups who feel they're being coerced into using them because they know other students are using them to get an advantage.

Unlike PED, which helps athletes build muscle, smart drugs don't actually make you smarter; the goal is to focus the brain and make it work more efficiently.

The science on the effectiveness of these drugs is still a gray area, but users should keep in mind they are not licensed for this use. The positive effects of smart drugs may be nothing more than just placebos.

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