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

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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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 are using brain-enhancing drugs hoping to maximize their mental capabilities.

College students, scientists, entrepreneurs, investment bankers, and Silicon Valley geeks are among those taking these substances to sharpen their minds and stay competitive with their peers. (123)

Proponents of brain enhancement drugs say they are no different than using caffeine, a socially accepted psychoactive substance that makes you more alert and focused.

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

The Most Popular Brain-Enhancing Drugs

Let’s start by considering the three most popular brain-enhancing pills — 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 to obtain these so-called smart drugs.

Piracetam

Piracetam is a popular study drug.

It’s a derivative of the naturally occurring brain chemical GABA. (4)

Piracetam was developed by Corneliu Giurgea, PhD, who also coined the term nootropic — a substance that improves mental function while doing no harm. (5, 6)

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

It may improve blood flow to the brain, increase brain plasticity, or increase acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning. (7, 89)

Piracetam is the most widely used of the racetams — a group of man-made nootropics that includes other “tams” like 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. (10)

There’s evidence that it is useful for those with traumatic brain injury or stroke. (11)

But there’s little evidence that piracetam offers any noticeable cognitive benefits in healthy people. (12)

Interestingly, one study found that piracetam is of more benefit for anxiety and depression than it is for memory improvement — the main reason people take it. (13)

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. (14)

How to Buy Piracetam

The availability and legal status of piracetam varies by country.

Here in the US, it is not approved for either medical use or as a supplement. (15)

You can’t buy it in stores, 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.

Piracetam goes by many other names depending on where you live.

Drugs.com has a complete list of piracetam names by country.

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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. (16)

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

Modafinil is a favorite among biohackers, Silicon Valley geeks, 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.” (17)

An analysis of 24 studies on modafinil concluded that it was effective only for very specific tasks.

Modafinil made no difference to working memory, or flexibility of thought, but did help with longer and more complex tasks such as planning and decision making. (18, 19)

Modafinil Side Effects

The most common side effects of modafinil are headache and nausea. (20)

Other reported side effects include insomnia, anxiety, nervousness, hypertension, heart palpitations, decreased appetite, and weight loss. (21)

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 similar brainwave patterns during sleep as those of cocaine users. (22)

How to Obtain Modafinil

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

The legal status varies by country; for example, it is legal to possess and use modafinil in the United Kingdom without a prescription. (23)

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

According to Vice.com, 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. (24)

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

But even if you don’t have ADHD, 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 writing term papers. (25)

Adderall and Ritalin Side Effects

Adderall’s major side effects are bladder pain, trouble urinating, racing heartbeat, and flu-like symptoms. (26)

Ritalin’s most common side effects are increased heart rate, chest pain, joint pain, fever, and rashes. (27)

The worst side effects can be extremely serious — suicidal thoughts, heart attack, and stroke. (28)

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

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, but buyer beware.

This is illegal and quality is not assured.

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

The use of brain-enhancing drugs is exploding and some of the smartest people around 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.

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. (29)

Provigil helps employees stay alert so they can code for 12 hours at a time. (30)

Modafinil is popular among Wall Street bankers who liken it to “Viagra for the brain.” (31)

2. The Military Uses Mind Enhancement Drugs for Overcoming Combat Fatigue

Somewhat disturbingly, soldiers have been called “the weakest instrument of warfare” since they have to eat and sleep. (32)

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

The United States is not alone in this endeavor. (33, 34)

In studies funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, it was found that, when using modafinil, subjects not only improved their cognitive test scores, but could stay awake as long as 90 hours.

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

As many as one in five college students uses brain enhancers to stay on top of demanding studies. (35, 36)

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 they can cram for exams.

Adderall use on college campuses has gotten so out of control, their use has created occasional nationwide Adderall shortages. (37)

4. Scientists Use Cognitive Enhancers to Increase Memory, Focus, and Concentration

Surprisingly, scientists are coming down on the side of legalizing mental enhancers for everyone … because they use them themselves!

Nature.com conducted an informal survey of 1,400 scientists from 60 countries. (38)

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 boosting their brain power by taking a brain-boosting drug if there was “a normal risk of mild side effects.”

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5. Biohackers Use Brain-Boosting Drugs to Achieve Peak Mental Performance

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 he has spent over $1,000,000 hacking his own brain!

Asprey is such a huge fan of modafinil, he’s gone on record saying that he would continue to take it even if he knew it would shorten his life. (39)

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. (40)

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 performance and they showed a decline in creative thinking. (41)

Brain Enhancers Instill False Confidence

These brain-boosting pills can give you a false sense of confidence.

Interestingly, studies have repeatedly shown that they 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 they performed better on tests.

In reality, however, their performance showed no improvement at all. (42)

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

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The Downside of Brain-Enhancing Drugs

Besides the shadow of doubt on their effectiveness, here are some other compelling arguments against the use of brain-enhancing drugs.

Side Effects

Like all drugs, brain enhancers can have side effects. (43)

Some are highly addictive and quitting can be an ordeal. (44)

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, repairs itself, and creates new brain cells. (4546, 47, 48)

Brain enhancement drugs may diminish creativity. (49)

US Memory Champion Joshua Foer describes experiencing “concentrated thinking with blinders on” under the influence of these drugs. (50)

Dangerous for Young Brains

Brain drug use is most prevalent among 19-25 year-olds, but they are particularly dangerous for young brains. (51)

Even modafinil enthusiast Dave Asprey emphatically warns anyone under the age of 25 to skip these drugs while their brains are still forming. (52)

He recommends that they stick with coffee instead.

Legality

Unless you have a legitimate doctor’s prescription, buying brain-enhancing drugs is a legal grey area.

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

In the UK, possession of Ritalin without a prescription can get you five years in jail. (53)

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 a prescription antidepressant. (54, 55)

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 in the US. (56)

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, has experimented extensively with brain-enhancing substances of all kinds.

Tim warns that there is “no biological free lunch.” (57)

He’s found that time spent in an artificially obtained state of peak brain performance has “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. (58)

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 pills 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 your brain healthier while boosting mental performance.

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

Meditation

Some of the most successful people in the world attribute 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. (59)

Exercise

Richard Branson, the world’s most fun-loving billionaire, reveals that his top productivity hack is physical exercise. (60)

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.

Diet

Tim Ferriss starts his day with “titanium tea,” a blend of Cruz De Malta Yerba Mate to which he adds ginger, turmeric, coconut oil, and pu-erh, a prized ancient tea. (61)

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

Brain-Enhancing Drugs: Take the Next Step

Just because some people are taking drugs they believe will increase their brain power doesn’t mean it’s a smart idea.

These drugs have side effects, are almost always obtained quasi-legally, and may not work as claimed.

Only you can decide if they are right for you, but be aware that brain-enhancing drugs are not the only way to increase your cognitive abilities.

Take the time to investigate natural brain enhancers, the true nootropics.

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