Do brain enhancing drugs work? Do they really improve memory, focus and mental energy? Are they worth the risks? Learn about their safety and effectiveness.
A lot of smart people are using brain enhancing drugs in hopes of maximizing their mental capabilities.
Proponents of brain enhancing drugs say they are no different than drinking coffee, a socially accepted mind-altering drink that makes you more alert and focused.
But are brain enhancing drugs as safe and effective as a cup of coffee?
What, if any, are the downsides of using these drugs?
Here’s what you need to know to make an educated decision on whether these substances are worth the risks.
Brain Enhancing Drugs, Smart Drugs, and Nootropics: What’s the Difference?
You can’t dip your toe into the world of cognitive enhancers without coming across some pretty confusing terminology.
Let’s clear that up right now!
Brain or memory enhancing drugs, often referred to as “smart drugs,” are pharmaceuticals taken to allegedly improve memory, learning, focus, attention, and other cognitive skills.
Examples of brain enhancing drugs are Adderall, (prescribed for ADHD) and modafinil (prescribed for sleep disorders).
Here’s where the terminology gets murky.
Pretty much any substance used to boost brain function is now being called a nootropic.
According to the original definition, nootropics are cognitive enhancing drugs and supplements that should improve the health of your brain and do no harm. (4)
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So while many natural nootropic supplements fit the bill as being neuroprotective and safe with few side effects, the same can’t be said for brain enhancing drugs.
There is no regulation of the use of the term nootropics and its overuse has made the term largely meaningless.
And unfortunately the “do no harm” part of the definition has gone by the wayside.
The Most Popular Memory Enhancing Drugs
The majority of memory enhancing drugs fall into one of these categories — off-label use ADHD medications, piracetam, and modafinil.
Here’s a quick rundown on each.
These work by addressing an imbalance between the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine.
They are helpful for the inattentiveness, poor memory, impulsiveness, and mood swings experienced by people with ADHD.
If you don’t have ADHD, these drugs will undoubtedly make you feel alert and mentally clear temporarily.
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But their regular use leads to tolerance so that you need to take more to get the same results and they’re also considered highly addictive. (5)
These drugs are legal only if you have a doctor’s prescription.
Piracetam is a derivative of the brain chemical GABA and was developed by the same scientist who coined the term nootropics.
It’s popular on college campuses as a study drug.
It is available in some countries, either by prescription or over-the-counter, but here in the US it is not approved as either a medication or supplement. (6)
You can’t buy it in stores, but online retailers have found a loophole so it can be purchased online (at least for now).
Piracetam goes by other names including Nootropyl, Nootropil, and Lucetam.
It’s the most widely used of the racetams — a class of cognitive enhancing drugs that includes other “tams” like Aniracetam and Oxiracetam.
Modafinil is a favorite among biohackers, Silicon Valley geeks, and Wall Street bankers.
It was originally created for sleep disorders and was found only by chance to help with focus and concentration.
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It’s only medically approved uses are for narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder, and obstructive sleep apnea. (7)
Many nootropic proponents claim that modafinil is completely safe, yet 50% of modafinil users report headache as a side effect. (8)
Little is known about long-term use of modafinil, but PET scans show it affects the same areas of the brain involved in substance abuse.
Long-term use of modafinil significantly upsets sleep cycles creating similar brainwave patterns during sleep as cocaine users. (11)
Modafinil is the generic name. It also goes by the brand names Provigil, Modalert and Alertec.
Do Brain Enhancing Drugs Make You Smarter?
Studies have repeatedly shown that smart drugs don’t make you smarter but they’re pretty good at making you think you’re performing better.
As many as one in five college students have used these drugs to help them study but research has found these drugs impair rather than boost mental performance.
In fact, when healthy students were given modafinil, their thinking slowed down with no improvement in performance and they showed a decline in creative thinking. (12)
Another study found that when participants expected to receive Ritalin, they reported better focus regardless of whether they were given Ritalin or a placebo.
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Conversely, when they didn’t expect to get Ritalin, their cognitive performance declined, even when they got the real drug! (13)
Most users believe the drugs are working.
In fact, study participants given Adderall reported that it caused them to perform better on tests even when their performance showed no improvement at all. (14)
The Downsides of Brain Enhancing Drugs
Besides the possibility that these drugs may not work, there other compelling arguments against their use.
Obtaining Smart Drugs: A Gray Legal Area
The legal way to get a brain enhancing drug is with a doctor’s prescription.
Some people obtain a prescription by feigning ADHD symptoms.
There are other ways of course.
You can borrow from your friends or find a drug dealer — most college campuses have them.
You can play it “safe” and order them online and take your chances.
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Since this is a quasi-legal area, there are no regulations or guarantees you’re getting what you’ve paid for.
This is true even if you buy from a reputable site like Amazon where some third-party sellers have been caught selling counterfeit supplements. (16)
Obtaining these drugs illegally can have some serious consequences.
In the United Kingdom, possession of unprescribed Ritalin can get you five years in prison. (17)
Before you go shopping, look up the legality of any smart drug in your country at SmartDrugsSmarts.com legality checker.
For Adults, Not Students
Smart drugs can be particularly harmful for people under age 25 since their brains are not yet fully developed.
Biohacker Dave Asprey has gone public on ABC Nightline extolling the virtues of modafinil.
But when asked if it is OK for high school or college students, Asprey responded emphatically, “God no! And stay away from Adderall (prescription meth) too … Your brain won’t be mature fully until 23-25 years old!” (18)
He adds that a little coffee in the morning is a better choice for students in this age bracket.
Insomnia Is Not a Benefit
Some users consider insomnia a benefit that enables them to keep going with minimal sleep for extended periods of time.
Visit online nootropic and smart drug forums and you’ll find people bragging about how little sleep they can get by on.
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Insomnia is not a benefit, it’s a hazardous side effect that’s one of the worst things for your brain.
Your brain needs adequate, quality sleep.
Brain Enhancing Drug Side Effects and Interactions
These drugs can have side effects like headache, nausea, anxiety, insomnia, chest pains, racing heart, and can be addictive. (23)
Adderall’s top side effects are bladder pain, trouble urinating, and racing heartbeat. (24)
Long-term side effects of Ritalin can be extremely serious — mental health problems, irregular heartbeat, physical collapse, and even death. (25)
These drugs should be avoided if you drink alcohol or use antidepressants. (26)
Adverse drug reactions are now the fourth leading cause of death in the US. (27)
Using off-label drugs without a prescription greatly increases your risk of side effects.
Natural Ways to Enhance Your Brain
Using brain enhancing drugs when the risks are great and the potential benefits are in question makes little sense, especially when there are so many better ways to give your brain a boost.
This entire website is devoted to showing you natural, effective ways to increase your brain power!
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Eat plenty of brain healthy foods, get adequate sleep and physical exercise, meditate, or do some neurobic brain exercises — all those things you know you should be doing anyway.
Try a natural nootropic supplement that fits the original definition of a nootropic, including the “do no harm” part.
You might find you don’t need brain enhancing drugs after all.
Intelligence is the ability to learn from your mistakes. Wisdom is the ability to learn from the mistakes of others. — Anonymous
If you’re still on the fence as to whether you want to give drugs like modafinil a try, check out this mini-documentary Can Pills Make Me Smarter? by a group of British university students.
One of the students tries modafinil and reports on his experience which he sums up as “wretched.”
Brain Enhancing Drugs: The Bottom Line
Smart drugs have side effects, are almost always obtained quasi-legally, and may not even work.
You have only one brain.
You can artificially stimulate it now for perceived short-term benefits.
Or you can nourish and protect it so that it stays sharp for a lifetime.
The decision is a no-brainer.