Taking memory enhancement drugs to improve learning capacity and recall has led to an interesting ethical debate. Athletes are considered cheating if they use steroids — is using smart drugs to gain an intellectual edge any different?
Some people say that this way to enhance memory is no different than drinking coffee, a socially accepted ‘drug’ that makes you more alert.
What Are Smart Drugs?
The so-called “smart drugs” that are used for memory enhancement were originally created for some other medicinal purpose. Here’s a look at some of the most popular drugs used for brain enhancement that were designed for other health conditions.
Adderall and Ritalin
These two drugs are very similar and are prescribed for ADHD and ADD. They work by addressing an imbalance between the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in people with these conditions.
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 used 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 to help them study.
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, but you can surprisingly purchase it from reputable online stores including Amazon.
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.
Why Smart People Use “Smart Drugs”
People without these disorders are using these drugs in off-label ways to increase cognitive abilities.
These prescription meds are called “study drugs” and have become popular on campus to increase their learning ability and retention. These drugs also enable students to go extended periods without sleep so they can cram for exams. Many claim it gives 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 illegally online.
Their use has gotten so out of control that the over-prescribing of one of these drugs, Adderall, has resulted in periods of a nationwide Adderall shortage in the U.S.!
Ironically, scientists are coming down on the side of legalizing these drugs for everyone. Why is that? Because they use these drugs themselves!
An informal online survey done by Nature.com found that out of the 1400+ scientists that responded, over 20% admitted to using “brain doping” drugs for non-medical purposes to increase focus, memory, and concentration! And nearly 70% of the scientists said they would consider boosting their brain power by taking a cognitive-enhancing 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.
The Downside of Memory Enhancement Drugs
These drugs being so popular among intelligent, educated people, makes you wonder if these people are onto something! But when I step back and look objectively at the pros and cons, I find the arguments against these off-label uses compelling:
- There are possible side effects, as there are with any drugs. 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.
- There is doubt that these drugs actually do increase mental functions.
There are so many safer ways you can give your brain a boost, such as eating right, taking certain supplements, getting adequate sleep and exercise, using brainwave entrainment, meditating, or even drinking coffee. It seems short-sighted to use these 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.
Studies Cast Doubt That They Work
Some studies have shown that taking these cognitive enhancers 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 desirable to me!
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