Do Brain-Enhancing Drugs Work? Know the Risks, Benefits

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Last updated November 29, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Do brain-enhancing drugs really improve memory, focus, and mental energy? Learn about their safety and effectiveness and cognitive-boosting alternatives.

A lot of smart people use brain-enhancing drugs hoping to maximize their mental capabilities.

College students, scientists, entrepreneurs, Wall Street traders, and Silicon Valley workers are among those taking these substances to stay competitive with their peers. 

Proponents of brain enhancement drugs say they are no different than using caffeine, a socially accepted psychoactive substance that boosts alertness and focus.

But are these drugs really as safe as a cup of coffee?

And are they any more effective?

The Most Popular Brain-Enhancing Drugs

Let’s start by considering the three most popular brain-enhancing drugs — piracetam, modafinil, and ADHD medications.

First, we’ll explore how these drugs work and the benefits you might expect.

Then, we’ll discuss the potential side effects and how these so-called smart drugs are usually obtained.


Piracetam is a popular study drug.

It’s a derivative of the naturally occurring brain chemical GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).

Piracetam was developed by Corneliu Giurgea, PhD, a psychologist and chemist who coined the term nootropic — a substance that improves mental function while doing no harm to brain health

" 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.

It’s not fully understood how piracetam may work, but there are several theories.

It might work by improving blood flow to the brain, increasing brain plasticity, or increasing acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning. 


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Piracetam is the most widely used of the racetams, a group of man-made nootropics that includes aniracetam and oxiracetam.

According to a review of 19 piracetam studies, it can improve memory, but only in seniors experiencing age-related mental decline or dementia. 

There’s evidence that it can be useful for those with traumatic brain injury or stroke as well. 

But there’s little evidence that piracetam offers any noticeable cognitive benefits in healthy people. 

In fact, some research has found that piracetam decreases levels of the “memory molecule” acetylcholine

Interestingly, a review of studies found that piracetam is of more benefit for anxiety and depression than for memory improvement, the main reason people take it. 

Piracetam Side Effects

The most commonly reported side effect of piracetam is headache.

Other adverse effects include anxiety, agitation, depression, drowsiness, insomnia, and weight gain. 

How to Buy Piracetam

The availability and legal status of piracetam varies by country. 

In the US, it is not approved for either medical use or as a supplement. 

You can’t buy it in stores, from Amazon, or from brand-name vitamin companies online.

But since piracetam falls into a legal grey area, you can buy it online from sites that specialize in synthetic nootropics.Some of these proprietors are more reputable than others, so do your due diligence before ordering from any online retailer.

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Modafinil (Provigil)

Provigil is the brand name for the generic drug modafinil.

It was originally created for sleep disorders.

Modafinil’s only medically approved uses are for narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder, and obstructive sleep apnea. 

It was found only by chance to help with focus and concentration.

Modafinil is a favorite among biohackers, Silicon Valley employees, and Wall Street bankers.

When all goes well, the feeling you get from taking modafinil has been compared to “your younger self after a very good night’s sleep.” 

A review of 24 studies performed by University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School researchers concluded that modafinil was effective, but only for particular tasks.

Modafinil made no difference to working memory or mental flexibility, but it did help with longer and more complex tasks, such as planning and decision-making. 

Modafinil Side Effects

The most common side effects of modafinil are headache and nausea. 

Other reported side effects include insomnia, anxiety, nervousness, hypertension, heart palpitations, decreased appetite, and weight loss. 

Not a lot is known about the long-term use of modafinil, but PET scans show that it affects the same areas of the brain involved in substance abuse.

There’s some evidence that its long-term use significantly upsets sleep cycles, creating brainwave patterns during sleep similar to those of cocaine users. 

How to Obtain Modafinil

Modafinil is technically legally available only by prescription in the US, but it’s widely known that there is a lot of off-label use.

The legal status of modafinil varies by country.


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A quick Google search will reveal many places to buy it online.

Finding modafinil online is not hard, but finding a high-quality source is.

ADHD Medications

ADHD medications like Adderall and Ritalin work by increasing levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine or norepinephrine. 

They can be helpful for the inattentiveness, poor memory, impulsiveness, and mood swings experienced by people with ADHD.

But even if you don’t have an attention disorder, these drugs will undoubtedly make you feel alert and mentally clear.

They can help you focus and stay awake and possibly help with rote memorization, but they are not helpful for more complex mental tasks.

And even though they are widely used as study drugs, there’s no evidence that they help with studying for exams or completing academic projects.

Adderall and Ritalin Side Effects

Adderall’s major side effects are bladder pain, trouble urinating, racing heartbeat, and flu-like symptoms. 

Ritalin’s most common side effects are increased heart rate, chest pain, joint pain, fever, and rashes. 

The worst side effects can be extremely serious — suicidal thoughts, psychosis, and heart attack. 

These drugs are highly addictive amphetamines that are on the list of Schedule II controlled substances, a category that includes cocaine, methamphetamine, and oxycodone.

How to Obtain ADHD Medications

In the US, Adderall and Ritalin are legal only with a doctor’s prescription.

You can buy these drugs online without a prescription, however, so buyer beware.

This is illegal and quality is not assured.

Who’s Using Brain-Enhancing Drugs (and Why)

The use of brain-enhancing drugs is exploding and some very smart people rely on them for a mental edge.

All these smart people can’t be wrong … or can they?

Let’s see who is using them and why.

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1. People in High-Pressure Careers Use Brain-Enhancing Drugs to Stay Competitive

Working in Silicon Valley may be the best gig on Earth.

The perks and the pay can’t be beat.

But the long hours and constant pressure to stay on top of your game can be unbearable. 

Provigil helps employees stay alert so that they can code for 12 hours at a time

Modafinil is also popular among Wall Street bankers who liken it to “Viagra for the brain.” 

2. The Military Uses Mind Enhancement Drugs for Combat Fatigue

Disturbingly, soldiers are considered “the weakest instrument of warfare” since they have to eat and sleep. 

The US military spends $100 million annually looking for ways to overcome this “weakness,” to help personnel stay mentally sharp while reducing their need for sleep. 

Currently, all four branches of the US armed forces allow the use of brain-enhancing drugs under certain conditions.

In military-sponsored studies, it was found that modafinil not only improved subjects’ cognitive test scores but helped them stay awake for up to 90 hours.

While the US leads the way, they are far from being alone in this endeavor as France, South Korea, China, India, and other countries join in. 

3. College Students Use Brain-Boosting Pills to Cram for Exams

As many as one in five college students use brain enhancers to stay on top of demanding studies

On college campuses, Adderall, Ritalin, piracetam, and modafinil are known as “study drugs” or “professor’s little helpers.”

These drugs enable students to go extended periods without sleep so that they can cram for exams.

Adderall use on US college campuses has gotten so out of control that it has created occasional nationwide Adderall shortages. 

4. Scientists Use Cognitive Enhancers to Increase Mental Performance

Some scientists advocate the legalization of mental enhancers for everyone because they use them themselves. conducted an informal survey of 1,400 scientists from 60 countries. 

Over 20% admitted using brain-enhancing drugs for non-medical reasons — to increase focus, memory, and concentration.

And nearly 70% of the scientists said they would consider increasing their mental performance by taking a brain-boosting drug if there was “a normal risk of mild side effects.”

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5. Biohackers Seek Peak Brain Function

Biohackers seek optimal brain performance — increased IQ, creativity, and productivity — through any means possible.

One serious, outspoken proponent of modafinil is Dave Asprey, who has built a small industry around his Bulletproof coffee concept.

In his book Head Strong, Asprey claims to have spent over $1,000,000 hacking his own brain.

Asprey is such a huge fan of modafinil that he’s gone on record saying that he would continue to take it even if he knew it would shorten his life. 

Many fellow biohackers embrace his philosophy with cult-like enthusiasm.

6. Seniors Use Memory-Enhancing Drugs to Stay Mentally Sharp

And lastly, many baby boomers and seniors take memory-enhancing drugs

With epidemics of dementia and Alzheimer’s looming, these older folks are highly motivated to do whatever they can to stay mentally sharp and retain their memories.

Do Brain-Enhancing Drugs Really Work?

With brain-enhancing drugs being used by so many intelligent, educated people, you might be surprised to learn that there’s plenty of doubt as to whether these drugs work as intended.

In fact, some research has found that these drugs impair, rather than boost, mental performance.

When healthy students were given modafinil, their thinking slowed down with no improvement in mental performance and they experienced a decline in creative thinking. 

A recent University of Cambridge study tested the effects of various smart drugs on people who did not have ADHD.

Researchers found that these drugs led to erratic thinking and reduced productivity. 

When participants were given a complex task, completing it took them 50% longer than average.

Brain Enhancers Instill False Confidence

These brain boosters can give their users a false sense of confidence.

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.

Most users believe the drugs are working.

In one study, participants given Adderall reported that they performed better on tests.

In reality, however, their performance showed no improvement at all

It’s not hard to see how false confidence in your mental powers could have disastrous effects on your academic or professional life.

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The Downside of Brain-Enhancing Drugs

Besides doubt about their effectiveness, there are other compelling arguments against the use of brain-enhancing drugs.

Side Effects

Like all drugs, brain enhancers can have side effects, including being highly addictive

These brain enhancers allow users to go without sleep for extended periods of time.

But in the long-term, insomnia is a hazardous side effect, not a so-called benefit.

Lack of sleep is extremely detrimental to your brain health and function.

It’s during sleep that your brain consolidates memories, cleans away toxins, reorganizes and repairs itself, and creates new brain cells

Brain enhancement drugs are believed to diminish creativity

US Memory Champion Joshua Foer describes experiencing “concentrated thinking with blinders on” under the influence of these drugs.

Dangerous for Young Brains

Brain drug use is most prevalent among those between 19 and 25 years old, but these drugs are particularly dangerous for young brains. 

Even modafinil enthusiast Dave Asprey emphatically warns anyone under the age of 25 to skip these drugs while their brains are still forming. 

He recommends that they stick with coffee instead.


Unless you have a legitimate doctor’s prescription, buying brain-enhancing drugs ranges from legally ambiguous to downright illegal.

You really have no idea what you are buying and, while it’s generally unlikely, you could get into legal trouble.

For example, in the UK, possession of Ritalin without a prescription can get you five years in jail.

Drug Interactions and Contraindications

Taking these drugs without a doctor’s supervision can be dangerous.

There are interactions and contraindications that can cause serious problems.

These drugs should not be used if you drink alcohol or take one of the many drugs known to cause interactions

The possibility of adverse drug reactions should not be taken lightly.

By some calculations, adverse drug reactions are now the fourth leading cause of death.

Brain-Enhancing Drugs: “No Biological Free Lunch”

It’s been said that “Intelligence is the ability to learn from your mistakes. Wisdom is the ability to learn from the mistakes of others.”

It might be wise to avail yourself of the experiences of others.

Tim Ferriss, bestselling author of The 4-Hour Workweek and host of one of the most popular podcasts in the world, has experimented extensively with brain-enhancing substances of all kinds.

Tim warns, “There’s no biological free lunch.” 

He’s found that time spent in an artificially altered state of brain function demands “payback time” later.

He cautions that if you’re going to experiment with brain enhancers, you must track your hack.”

He gets his blood chemistry tested every 4 to 8 weeks and recommends that anyone experimenting with brain-enhancing drugs do the same. 

Safe and Effective Alternatives to Brain Enhancement Drugs

For better or worse, the prevalent use of brain-enhancing drugs has started a weird arms race.

Will employees eventually be tested for brain enhancers along with illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and opiates?

Or will employers put them in the water cooler to make their staff more productive?

Fortunately, synthetic mental enhancers are not the only way to power up your brain.

True Nootropics

There’s an entire group of brain enhancers that are true nootropics, based on natural substances that “do no harm” and, in fact, make the brain healthier while boosting mental performance.

Related on Be Brain Fit —
Cognitive Enhancers Compared

And for long-term sustained focus, productivity, and mental energy, you can’t beat proven mind-enhancing lifestyle habits, such as:


Some of the most successful people in the world attribute some of their success to meditation or other mind-body techniques, such as guided imagery or self-hypnosis.

Corporations like Google, Apple, and Nike offer structured meditation programs for executives and encourage employees at all levels to do it. 


Regular physical exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain.

Richard Branson, the world’s most fun-loving billionaire, considers exercise to be his top productivity hack

He finds that he can “achieve twice as much by keeping fit.”

Power Naps

Some of the greatest minds of all time — Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo DaVinci — believed in the restorative power of sleep and refreshed their brains by taking power naps.


Tim Ferriss starts his day with “titanium tea,” a blend of Cruz De Malta Yerba Mate, ginger, turmeric, coconut oil, and pu-erh, a prized ancient tea. 

And finally, there’s an eating plan called the MIND diet that’s been proven over decades of study to be a brain enhancer.

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