Taking memory enhancing drugs to improve learning capacity and recall has led to an interesting debate.
Athletes are considered “cheating” if they use steroids — is using drugs to gain an intellectual edge any different?
Some people say that using drugs or supplements to enhance memory is no different than drinking coffee, a socially accepted “drug” that makes you more alert.
But are brain enhancing drugs as safe as a cup of coffee? And do they work? Are they worth the side effects?
What Are Memory Enhancing Drugs?
Memory enhancing drugs, often referred to as “smart drugs,” are actually medications that are supposedly available only by prescription.
Other substances used to boost brain function are nutritional supplements referred to as nutraceuticals or nootropics.
Nutraceutical is a term used to suggest that a supplement has medical benefits.
Nootropic is a word originally coined to refer to brain enhancement drugs, but is now used to describe supplements to give the impression of enhanced benefits.
There is no regulation of the use of either of these terms. So when you see them realize it is a marketing ploy that has no real meaning.
Most memory enhancement drugs were originally created for some other medicinal purpose.
Here’s a look at the most popular ones:
Adderall and Ritalin
These two drugs are very similar and are prescribed for the conditions ADHD and ADD. They work by addressing an imbalance between the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine.
They have been found helpful for the inattentiveness, trouble focusing on specific tasks, poor memory retention, thought disorganization, fidgeting, impulsiveness, mood swings and hyperactivity that are characteristic of ADHD and/or ADD. They are available only by prescription.
Provigil is a stimulant used to promote wakefulness in people with narcolepsy or shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). It has been used by U.S. soldiers in combat and at the International Space Station. It has been tried experimentally for Alzheimer’s, jet lag, ADHD, and chronic fatigue.
Provigil is the most popular brand name for the generic drug Modafinil. It also goes by other brand names including Modalert and Alertec. All are available by prescription.
Piracetam has been used for a variety of conditions including Alzheimer’s and autism. It is available in some countries, either by prescription or over-the-counter, but is not an FDA-approved medication.
It’s popular with the college crowd because they believe it helps them study better.
It can’t be sold in stores in the US, but online retailers have found a loophole so it can be bought legally online (at least for now).
Most of the sellers look pretty shady. You can purchase it from some online stores including Amazon but this is still no guarantee you’re getting what you’ve paid for. Unfortunately third-party sellers have been found to sell counterfeit supplements through Amazon. (1)
The FDA issued a warning to stop selling it as a dietary supplement and I’ve heard of orders being held up in customs.
Piracetam goes by other names including Nootropyl, Nootropil, and Lucetam.
Aniracetam is very similar but not identical to Piracetam, and is considered the slightly stronger of the two.
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Smart People Using Memory Enhancing Drugs
Most people taking mind enhancement drugs tend to fall within one of three groups – college students, scientists, and brain hackers.
The college crowd calls memory enhancing pills “study drugs.” They’ve become popular to help increase learning ability and retention.
They also enable students to go extended periods without sleep so they can cram for exams.
Many claim these substances give them the edge they need to keep up with demanding studies.
Since these drugs are legally available only by prescription, some students feign ADHD symptoms to get a prescription. Others buy or barter with those who have prescriptions or buy them illicitly online.
Adderall is one of the most popular prescription brain boosting drugs on campus. Their use has gotten so out of control, it’s resulted in periods of a nationwide Adderall shortage in the U.S. (2)
Surprisingly, scientists are coming down on the side of legalizing memory enhancing drugs for everyone … because they use them themselves!
An informal online survey done by Nature.com found that out of the 1400+ scientists that responded, over 20% admitted to using brain enhancing drugs for non-medical purposes to increase focus, memory, and concentration. (3)
And nearly 70% of the scientists said they would consider boosting their brain power by taking a brain boosting drug if there was “a normal risk of mild side effects.” Scientists responded from 60 countries, so this is not a situation isolated to the U.S.
Brain hackers seek optimal brain performance – increased IQ, creativity, and productivity — through any means possible. They are big into using memory enhancing drugs, often with a side of caffeine.
Outspoken proponents of brain hacking include Tim Ferriss (best-selling author of 4 Hour Work Week) and Dave Asprey (BulletproofExective.com). Many fellow hackers follow one or more of these leaders with almost cult-like enthusiasm.
When being interviewed by Dave for his popular podcast program, Tim admitted that the mechanisms by which cognitive enhancers work are not understood.
He warned that there is “no biological free lunch.” (4) Time spent in an artificially obtained state of peak brain performance has “pay back time” later.
He cautioned that if you’re going to experiment with brain enhancers you must “track your hack.” He gets his blood chemistry tested every 8 weeks and recommends that others do the same.
While he’s experimented extensively with all kinds of brain boosting substances, he’s found his favorite mind hack isn’t a drug. It’s a popular traditional South American tea – yerba mate.
(Dave’s brain boosting beverage of choice is coffee with butter.)
You can listen to the podcast here.
The Downside of Drugs for Memory Enhancement
Memory enhancing drugs are so popular among intelligent, educated people, it makes you wonder if they are onto something.
But I find the arguments against their use compelling:
- There are possible side effects. The most common complaints are headaches and nausea.
- They can be addictive.
- The safety for using these drugs in this way has not been established.
- The risks of using these drugs over extended periods of time are not known, particularly for young student brains.
- Buying drugs from unregulated sources online is risky. You really have no idea what you are getting.
- Buying illicit substances online leaves you vulnerable to getting scammed with no recourse.
- Taking these without a doctor’s supervision can be dangerous. There are contraindications — health conditions or other medications — that can cause serious problems.
- These drugs allow users to go without sleep for extended periods of time which is detrimental to your brain health in the long term.
- Many users report loss of creativity. Author and U.S. Memory Champion Joshua Foer describes experiencing “concentrated thinking with blinders on” under the influence of these drugs. (5)
- There is some doubt that these drugs actually do enhance mental functions.
Studies Cast Doubt That These Drugs Make Your Brain Work Better
Some studies have shown that taking cognitive enhancers can improve mental performance, but other studies have shown they don’t.
Just as someone who is drunk thinks they are suddenly better looking, funnier, and more charming, it seems these drugs possibly only make you think you are getting smarter.
If you’re still on the fence, 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.
Some words he uses to describe how he feels is “not like himself” and “wretched.” Not states that seem all that desirable.
In Conclusion: Better Alternatives to Smart Drugs
There are many safe and effective ways to give your brain a boost, such as taking nutritional supplements proven to safely provide a mental edge, getting adequate sleep and exercise, meditating, using brainwave entrainment or biofeedback, or even drinking tea and coffee.
It seems short-sighted to use memory enhancing drugs when the risks are great and the potential benefits are in question.
I think the comparison between using drugs to enhance mental performance and taking steroids to boost physical performance is a sound one.
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